Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton and Houston Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates have technically been on similar paths leading up to their meeting Sunday, but they haven't exactly been on a collision course.
Newton and Yates both ended their college careers with bowl victories – Newton in the BCS National Championship, Yates in the Music City Bowl.
Both took part in the NFL Combine – Newton as the center of attention, Yates as a Combine arm.
Then, both were picked in the NFL Draft – Newton as the No. 1 overall choice, Yates as a fifth-round selection facing an uphill battle to make the roster.
"I definitely didn't think this one was coming back at the Combine," said Yates, who will make his third start when the Texans host the Panthers on Sunday. "I was just one of the three throwing quarterbacks that was there to throw to all the defensive guys. I definitely wasn't expecting to be playing this early in my career, but it's been great so far."
Yates has been great so far, last week helping Houston (10-3) clinch the first playoff berth in franchise history with a 300-yard passing day against the Cincinnati Bengals. Yates stepped in when the Texans lost starter Matt Schaub and then second-stringer Matt Leinart to season-ending injuries.
"I'm a fan of T.J.," Newton said. "What he did this past week, throwing for 300 yards against a good, solid team, that's very impressive. He's come out of North Carolina and has held it down. When Matt Schaub went down, he picked the rifle up and just kept going. It's very impressive."
And Yates counts him as a member of Newton's admiration society.
"Everybody throughout the entire league and in the media doubted him and his ability to perform on this level, but he's exceeded all expectations and then some," Yates said. "He's done a great job with that offense, and everybody knows how athletically talented he is. He's a very dangerous player. He causes problems for opposing defenses."
Yates wasn't even close to taking a snap in any of the Texans' first 10 games, but he moved closer when Schaub suffered a season-ending foot injury in a Week 10 victory over Tampa Bay.
After the Texans' bye week, Leinart took over as starter, and Yates assumed the back-up role. But late in the first half of Leinart's first start at Jacksonville, Leinart suffered a season-ending shoulder injury that thrust Yates into the lineup.
After Yates helped secure the victory, Houston coach Gary Kubiak quickly came out and declared Yates the starter going forward.
"He told me right away that I was going to be the guy from there on out and that they were going to bring in a guy as a veteran back-up," Yates said. "Going into that next week of preparation, it gave me a world of confidence knowing that I wouldn't have to worry about any outside factors."
That veteran turned out to be none other than Jake Delhomme, the Panthers' starting quarterback from 2003-09. Between the presence of Delhomme and Schaub, Yates is in good hands.
"Jake's great," Yates said. "The first five minutes I was in the film room with him watching Atlanta film, he was just throwing out information. He's so quick to give me pointers, give me tips on anything I made need help with. At the same time, he's trying to learn our offense at a very quick pace, so he's asking me questions. We're bouncing things off each other.
"Matt Schaub is such a leader on this team, and he continues to be that leader. It hurts a team for a guy like that to go down, but he's done a great job of still being a voice even though he's been hurt. He's taught me a ton."
Yates also learned a lot – much more than he ever wanted to – from his final season at North Carolina, when the NCAA spent a lot of time in the Tar Heels' huddle.
"It's very similar to my situation here, and I think it prepared me to deal with a situation where anything can happen," Yates said. "My senior season at North Carolina was a crazy one. Every single week we were getting guys suspended or back from suspension, so everybody throughout the whole entire roster had to be ready to step up and play.
"It's actually kind of like here now with the ton of injuries we've had and guys having to step up every single week all over the roster."
Yates certainly stepped up as a senior, breaking 37 school passing records to earn his way onto the radar of NFL scouts. He now finds himself standing alone as the only North Carolina quarterback ever to start an NFL game, though he's far from alone with the NFL's top-ranked defense on his side for Sunday's matchup against the NFL team just down the road from his alma mater.
"It's definitely been a little crazy with all the situations that have happened to this team – unfortunate situations for both the guys in front of me to go down," Yates said. "But we've dealt with all the adversity on our team and have kept winning as a football team, and that's been great."