NFL Preview - Denver (11-3) at Houston (2-12)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Just when you thought it couldn't get worse in Houston, it did.
Not only did the Texans get blown out of a Week 15 visit to Indianapolis - surrendering 20 first-half points in a 25-3 loss, it's 12th in a row since a 2-0 start - but it lost some key personnel for what remains of a season gone horribly wrong.
The 12 losses comprise the longest NFL streak since the Colts began 0-13 in 2011.
Oh, and this week they'll face the AFC's No. 1 team, the Denver Broncos.
Quarterback Case Keenum, who inherited the job when veteran Matt Schaub was injured and kept it when the 10th-year man was ineffective, will cede the position to his position-mate once again thanks to a sprained right thumb suffered in the Indianapolis game.
Schaub, for those who don't recall, last played on Nov. 17 against Oakland in a home game that was memorable because the Houston offense had to use a silent count on snaps - because the Texans' fans were booing his insertion so loudly.
The offense has been held without a touchdown in four of 14 games, and Schaub's nine TDs to 10 interceptions are a stark contrast to the 22/12 ratio he posted while going 12-4 as a starter last year.
Also absent this week will be running back Ben Tate, who was placed on injured reserve after aggravating one of the four broken ribs he'd been soldiering through since Week 8. Already without Pro Bowl runner Arian Foster thanks to a previous injury, Houston will start rookie Dennis Johnson, who has 154 yards on 37 carries across seven starts.
"I'm not worried about (the crowd) because I know a majority of our fans are with us no matter what and they've stuck through no matter what," said interim coach Wade Phillips, who replaced Gary Kubiak after he was fired following a Week 14 loss to Jacksonville. "We appreciate them. This is our last home game, so we need a lot of support and I think we'll get it."
Against the Broncos, it might not matter.
Denver comes in with the sting of a rare loss, having put its playoff positioning into peril with a 27-20 defeat by San Diego in which it was held to a season-low 295 total yards and scored its fewest points of the season.
The Broncos still hold the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff race, but the margin for error between home-field advantage and a plummet to the fifth seed - they're tied atop the West Division with the 11-3 Kansas City Chiefs - has been reduced to nearly zero.
New England, now 10-4, had a chance to seize the top spot last week, but lost at Miami.
Denver swept the season series with the Chiefs and will win all tiebreakers. It can clinch the division with a win and a Kansas City loss to Indianapolis, and can guarantee the No. 1 position with a win, a Kansas City loss and a Patriots loss or tie at Baltimore.
"It's a little brighter because we know what we've got to do to get home-field advantage: we've just got to keep winning," receiver Andre Caldwell said. "Even though we lost, we're still in the same position that we were in before that game. We've just got to handle our business and everything will fall in place."
The Broncos' final two opponents, Houston and Oakland, enter this week with a combined 6-22 mark.
"Of course it feels better to control your own destiny," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "But you don't want any scares like that. We want teams to come through Denver. The good thing is we're in control of that again and we've got to handle our business."
San Diego's Ryan Mathews became the first opposition runner to reach 100 yards in 2012 when he went for 127 last week. Denver is just 23rd in the league in total defense - 371.5 yards allowed per week - while Houston is 17th in rushing yardage and 13th in yards per carry.
The Broncos signed defensive end Jeremy Mincey this week to add a body to a unit that's without tackles Derek Wolfe (knee) and Kevin Vickerson (hip).
"If you don't get off on third down, teams can run the ball on you," linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "That's something that we have to continue to get better at. We can't let a team control the clock on us like that."
On offense, Denver was held to just 18 rush yards last week after averaging upwards of 188 in its previous three games. Wide receiver Wes Welker will miss another game with a concussion, but QB Peyton Manning has a career's worth of success against the Texans - 16-3 - and threw for 330 yards and two TDs against them in a 2012 game,
Manning's 47 scoring passes are three off Tom Brady's NFL record of 50.
"He's having a tremendous year, one of the greatest years ever," Phillips said. "It's going to be a big challenge for us. We're going to have to step up our defensive play, especially our pass defense."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Spreading it Out
The Broncos would be difficult enough to stop if it were just Manning and one or two weapons, but this year's Denver team is just silly with options.
No fewer than four players have reached the end zone at least 10 times in 14 games - Knowshon Moreno, Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Welker - making the Broncos the first team in league history with such a plethora.
Kiss and Throw it Up
Though there's been dissension between them during what's become a lost season, the previously prolific aerial combination of Schaub and Andre Johnson will be back together against Denver.
Johnson will arrive Sunday just a single catch short of reaching 100 for the fifth time in his career and he had a 60-yard TD catch when last facing the Broncos.
Let's see. The Broncos are in the middle of a heated playoff run, are coming off a loss and will be heading to a city where the weather will be more forgiving than the chilliness they've seen lately both at home and on the road.
And they'll be facing an injury riddled team that's not won since September. No need for deep thought, this is as big a lock as there's been in 2013.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Broncos 31, Texans 14
12/19 12:07:30 ET