HOUSTON — The setbacks finally seemed to catch up to the Houston Texans in Cincinnati last week.
It had all been going remarkably well — while one key player after another went down with a major injury, Houston somehow continued to win.
At last, the Texans had run into a team good enough to beat them, and the Bengals had them down 16-3 at halftime, and 19-13 with just over two minutes left.
But not even that was too much for depleted Houston to overcome.
Rookie quarterback T.J. Yates, a fifth-round pick, calmly guided the Texans on an 80-yard touchdown drive that ended up lifting the young franchise to its first AFC South title and first playoff berth.
Houston (10-3) has won seven in a row going into Sunday's game against Carolina (4-9), and with the franchise's first postseason berth secured, the expansion team with the mostly dismal history is taking aim at the Super Bowl.
And the way this season is unfolding, who's to say the Texans can't get there?
"The division was one of our goals, but not our main goal," running back Arian Foster said, "and there's a lot more at stake out there for us to go grab. It's an opportunity that doesn't come along a lot in the NFL, so you have to take advantage of it, and that's what we're working towards doing."
Of course, the Texans are dealing with more obstacles this week.
Star receiver Andre Johnson is likely to sit out for the second straight week with a strained left hamstring, and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is taking a medical leave following kidney surgery. Phillips expects to miss a week to 10 days, and linebackers coach Reggie Herring will run the league's top-ranked defense.
Phillips has orchestrated a dramatic turnaround, transforming a defense that ranked 30th last season (377 yards per game) to No. 1 this year (275 yard per game). The 102-yard improvement would be the best in NFL history, and coach Gary Kubiak expects nothing to change in Phillips' absence.
"Our guys, they've showed such maturity all year long, through adversity and any issues," Kubiak said. "They understand the situation, and also want Wade to be sitting there watching them play Sunday and make him proud.
"I watch guys continue to find a little bit more in themselves, week in and week out," he said. "That's what our team is all about."
The Texans have held their last seven opponents below 20 points, but doing that against rookie quarterback Cam Newton this week will be a major task.
With Newton at the helm, the Panthers have made nearly as drastic a reversal on offense as Houston has on defense. Carolina ranks fifth in total offense (399 yards per game) after ranking last in 2010 (258.4 yards per game).
"It does start with the quarterback," first-year coach Ron Rivera said. "Quite frankly, that position has really been solidified with Cam, as he's developing and learning the system."
Newton needs 167 yards passing to top Peyton Manning's rookie record, set in 1998 (3,739 yards). The top overall pick in last year's draft, Newton already set a rookie mark with 432 yards passing in a 30-23 loss to Green Bay in Week 2, and his 13 rushing touchdowns are a single-season record for a quarterback.
"The young man's everything we hoped he would be," Rivera said.
The hardest part for Kubiak this week may have been trying to simulate Carolina's offense in practice. Not only do the Panthers run what Kubiak calls an "unconventional" offense, the Texans have no one who can adequately mimic what Newton does.
"I said, 'Hey guys, I'd love to tell you we can give you a good look in practice of what you're going to face this week, but we can't,'" Kubiak said. "We're going to do our best. You've got to respect what he is, as an athlete and what he can do to you. It's a different challenge because of what they do and all his ability."
On top of that, Newton gets to work with one of the league's top receivers.
Steve Smith leads the NFC and ranks second overall in yards receiving (1,217) and became the 35th player to reach 10,000 career yards receiving in last week's loss to Atlanta. He needs 10 catches to become Carolina's career leader, passing Muhsin Muhammad (696).
Smith should match up with top Houston cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who has four interceptions. Joseph remembers three previous encounters with Smith during his five-year stint in Cincinnati.
"He hasn't changed anything," Joseph said. "He's just a guy that goes up and competes on each and every play. In this league, that's all you can ask for from the guy you're opposing, a guy that's going to compete, whether it's a jump ball or a hitch.
"He can take it 80 or 90 yards, that's just what he's about, competing from the beginning to the end of a ballgame."