Dec 12, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) reacts following the loss to the San Diego Chargers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The San Diego Chargers defeated the Denver Broncos 27-20. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
KUSA - Could a road trip to face the NFL's worst team be the quick fix to what ails the Denver Broncos as they make their push to the postseason?
Coming off last week's loss at home against San Diego, the Broncos (11-3) play Sunday at Houston (2-12) and a win would keep Denver out front for the top spot in the AFC playoffs.
But all week the Broncos have contended it will take a serious amount of energy at Reliant Stadium to beat Houston. The Texans have been on the cusp to a different outcome in many games. Eight losses in their 12-game skid have been by a touchdown or less - and five by a field goal or less. Their two wins to open the season each were by less than a touchdown.
"They've had 10 games that have been one touchdown or less," Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said this week. "All I know is we're facing a good defense. That's what I know."
Despite having the league's worst record, the Texans' defense has given the team a chance many weeks. Houston is giving up just 183.3 yards passing per game (second in the NFL) and 304.2 overall (fourth). The problem is they have just six interceptions, which is fewest in the NFL, and allowed 25 TD passes (eighth most).
Up front, end J.J. Watt has been the leader with a league-high 55 solo tackles to go with 9.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. He's been complimented by fellow end Antonio Smith (five sacks, one forced fumble) have been the heart of the pass defense.
"Watt is a disruptive player," said Manning, who is 16-3 against Houston with 44 TD passes. "Not many guys have that much ability with that high of a motor. I think that's kind of what separates him, and he's certainly a handful."
With his record-breaking season continuing, Manning needs just three touchdown passes to tie Tom Brady for the NFL single-season record (50 for New England in 2007). With 4,811 passing yards this season, Manning needs 666 yards to break the single-season passing record (5,476 by Drew Brees in 2011).
A big question for the Broncos' offense is can they continue to get big games from Andre Caldwell as he plays for Wes Welker (concussion)? While Caldwell had a career game in Dec. 12 loss to San Diego, the rest of the receiving corps struggled.
Manning was 27-of-41 passing against the Chargers - 10 catches by running backs, six to Caldwell and five to tight ends. Demaryius Thomas had four receptions and Eric Decker had two.
"I think we had a great group of receivers. They put Decker inside, they put [TE Jacob] Tamme in there and they moved me to the outside," Caldwell said. "I think we're still explosive, still can put up big points and big numbers every week."
The Texans' offense had struggled to do either. Quarterback Matt Schaub is back as the starter Sunday because Case Keenum injured his thumb last week. Schaub was 2-4 to open the season before getting replaced by Keenum.
"He's had some very productive years down there and for whatever reason things haven't gone the way he or they would like it to be at this point," Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said of Schaub. "But we're gearing up for a challenge. A good football team that's maybe had a rough year but still a talented football team that's very capable."
Combined, the Texans' quarterbacks have been sacked 36 times, thrown just 18 TD passes and 16 interceptions. The Texans' offense has scored just 24 touchdowns, which ties for second-worst in the league, and Houston is minus-15 in the turnover margin.
And Houston's running game hasn't been much better with injuries to their top-two backs Arian Foster (back) and Ben Tate (ribs).
But the Texans face a Broncos defense that has had a rough season because of injuries and missed assignments. Look for cornerback Champ Bailey to return on passing downs after a season-long struggle with a foot injury. It just one of a number of injuries that have pained the Broncos' defense this season.
"When we have you guys telling us what our record is, what the standings are and what they could be and what they can't be-it's hard to overlook it," Bailey said of Houston. "But we know we've got to come out here and grind every day and make sure we're ready to play on Sunday."
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