It’s hard to believe, but the calendar already reads December.
It’s even harder to believe that we’re in December and the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans are squarely entrenched in the playoff conversation.
Yes, the same Broncos team that started the season 1-5 and was moon pounded for 70 points in NFL Week 3 has reeled off five straight wins and is sitting in ninth place in the AFC playoff picture.
And yes, a Texans team that has lost 13 games in each of the last two seasons, started this season 0-2 and was on the losing end of the Carolina Panthers’ only win is also 6-5 and would be the first team to miss the postseason if the playoffs started today – which they don’t.
They actually could be atop the AFC South right now had they been able to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, but Matt Ammendola’s 58-yard field goal try hit the crossbar and bounced out in the final minute of the fourth quarter and they ended up losing 24-21.
There’s a lot riding on Sunday’s game (on CBS) for each team’s playoff hopes, and sportsbooks have the Texans as 3.5-point favorites at NRG Stadium. Our supercomputer gives the Texans a 61.4% chance of winning this key AFC matchup with a projected score of 23-21.
The projection model is currently giving the Texans a 51.5% chance of reaching the playoffs (they were at 35.2 before the season started). It gives the Broncos a probability of just 20.2%, but a win in Houston would go a long way in boosting Denver’s shot at a playoff berth.
A victory would give the underdog Broncos wins on the season over the Texans, Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns, meaning they would own head-to-head tiebreakers over three other teams they’re currently battling for a playoff spot.
They beat the Browns last Sunday in one of their most complete games of the season, with Russell Wilson accounting for two touchdowns, the offense rushing for a season-high 169 yards and the defense allowing 269 yards – its fewest since the season opener – and forcing three more turnovers in a 29-12 win.
An opportunistic defense has sparked Denver’s stunning turnaround over the last month, with 15 takeaways in the last four games – the franchise’s most forced turnovers over a four-game stretch since 1989.
The offense hasn’t been too exciting since the winning streak began in Week 7. It’s 12th in scoring (23.4), 24th in successful play-rate (35.4) and 26th in total yards (293.6), but it hasn’t been shooting itself in the foot, turning the ball over a league-low three times.
Although the offense is playing steady, mistake-free football, the opportunity will be there for it to attack a vulnerable Houston secondary.
DEN Key: Air it Out
There’s been nothing particularly flashy about Wilson’s passing over the last two months with yardage totals of 196, 95, 194, 114, 193, 259 and 134 in the last seven games. That average of 169.3 passing yards per game ranks only ahead of Tommy DeVito of the New York Giants (139.4) and P.J. Walker of the Browns (112.3) among QBs with a minimum of 100 attempts since Week 5.
While being mentioned alongside DeVito and Walker is never a good sign from your franchise quarterback, his passer rating of 101.1 is fourth in the league since Week 5, putting him in the company of Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys (114.0), Brock Purdy of the San Francisco 49ers (110.7) and Joe Burrow of Cincinnati Bengals (106.5) – names you would much rather have your QB associated with.
On the season, he’s compiled a 103.4 QB rating thanks to an impressive touchdown-to-interception ratio with 20 TDs to only four picks. Among QBs with a minimum of 150 attempts, he ranks first in open target percentage (84.3), first in catchability percentage (82.9) and has the second-lowest pickable pass rate at 1.71.
Sean Payton’s Broncos have played things relatively safe, as Wilson’s average of 6.92 air yards per pass is the third-lowest rate in the league, but it’s time to take the training wheels off. OK, so maybe you don’t take the training wheels off a veteran in his 12th NFL season, but it’s time to let the nine-time Pro Bowler show what he’s capable of and air it out against a Houston secondary that is among the worst in the league.
The Texans allowed Trevor Lawrence to notch season highs of 364 passing yards and 9.58 yards per attempt last Sunday after he came in averaging 154.0 yards and 7.39 yards per attempt in his previous five games.
That was the latest in what has been a rough stretch for a Houston team that has been getting torched through the air.
Steven Nelson leads the Texans with three interceptions, but has frequently been beaten by his man, allowing an average burn yards per target of 13.67 – the second-worst rate among the 61 cornerbacks targeted at least 40 times.
Given the Texans soft defense, Courtland Sutton could be primed for a big day if Denver opens up the playbook. Sutton was on the receiving end of 25-yard and 31-yard passes last Sunday, giving him four receptions of at least 30 yards since Week 7. (Teammate Jerry Jeudy only has one catch of 25+ yards since Week 4.)
Only the Texans’ Noah Brown has more with five.
While Houston’s pass defense is subpar, Denver’s is superb.
At least, it’s been during the win streak after an abysmal start to the season.
The same defense that allowed Tua Tagovailoa of the Miami Dolphins to throw four touchdown passes in Week 3 and Justin Fields of the Chicago Bears to throw for a career-high 335 yards and four TDs a week later has clamped down defensively over the last month.
While shutting down Dorian Thompson-Robinson and P.J. Walker last Sunday isn’t particularly notable, intercepting Patrick Mahomes twice and holding him without a touchdown pass for the first time in 36 games in a 24-9 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 8 is mighty impressive.
The much-improved pass defense now faces a blossoming passer.
Few probably expected that C.J. Stroud would enter December leading the league in passing yards, but here we are in Week 13 with the No. 2 pick averaging 296.9 yards per game. His 8.35 yards per attempt is third in the league and 100.8 passer rating is sixth – one spot behind Wilson.
With 304 yards passing against the Jags, Stroud became the first rookie in NFL history with four straight 300-yard passing games. It was the league-leading sixth 300-yard passing game of the season for Stroud, who was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Month and the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month for November on Thursday.
Although Stroud is showing poise in the pocket and picking apart opposing secondaries, seeing as Denver is stout against the pass, Houston’s best bet to move the ball could be trying to re-establish the ground game against a shoddy run defense.
HOU Key: Run the Ball
The Texans have essentially abandoned the run game – and with good reason.
For starters, Stroud has been brilliant and is exceeding where most thought he’d be after just 11 games. Since Week 9, the Texans are passing on 64.0% of their offensive plays – the fifth-highest rate in the league.
It obviously makes sense that they’re passing so much seeing as they’re averaging nearly a first down every time Stroud throws (8.35 yards) compared to just 3.73 yards per rush – the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL. Houston has only had two runs all season go for at least 20 yards – tied for the fewest.
The Texans didn’t even try to get their running backs involved against the Jags, with Devin Singletary rushing six times for 18 yards and Dameon Pierce mustering just 14 yards rushing on five carries in his return after missing the previous three games with an ankle injury. Nico Collins, Singletary and Tank Dell totaled 18 receptions for 208 yards and two TDs.
Although the Jags have one of the best run defenses, it was a bit odd to see the ground game become such an afterthought seeing as Singletary rushed for 150 yards on 30 carries in Week 10 against the Bengals and 112 on 22 attempts the following Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.
A priority should be made to ensure Singletary gets more than six opportunities to carry the ball considering Denver’s woes stopping the run. Facing a Cleveland team last week that seemed unlikely to throw given its muddled quarterback situation, the Broncos still allowed Jerome Ford to average 7.2 yards per carry.
On the season, Denver is permitting an average of 5.40 yards per attempt, and in the Super Bowl era, only one team has allowed more yards per rush in a season and that was last year’s Los Angeles Chargers at 5.42.
Opponents have time and again been able to reel off big plays on the ground against them, as the Broncos have surrendered a league-worst 25 plays of 15 or more rushing yards.
Again, the Texans aren’t the biggest threat to run, and it may seem a bit counterintuitive to take the ball out of Stroud’s hands given the way he’s been playing, but if Houston can take advantage of the Broncos’ inability to stop the run it would certainly help take the pressure off Stroud against their formidable secondary.