NFL Nation: 2013 Week 16 DEN at HOU

Peyton ManningTroy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsPeyton Manning owns the single-season record for TD passes, surpassing Tom Brady with No. 51.
HOUSTON -- There are times when history demands a Sharpie.

A little mark, here and there, to make sure things don’t get lost in the shuffle. But along with the third consecutive AFC West title and a first-round postseason bye the Broncos brought with them on their chartered flight Sunday night, there were two pieces of football history.

Two footballs, bearing small notations from Broncos equipment manager Chris Valenti on the laces to label Peyton Manning’s 50th and 51st touchdown passes of the season, were along for the ride.

“And that’s unbelievable," said Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, after Manning’s four-touchdown day led the Broncos to a 37-13 victory against the Houston Texans. “The guy is in his 16th year. For what this game takes out of you, for what it takes to get yourself ready to perform at the level he performs, to make it into your mid-to-late 30s and to play at the level he is right now, to do what he’s doing, it’s unbelievable. I know everybody sees the numbers and the numbers are records, almost every week a record, but the only people who really appreciate what he’s doing, how he’s doing it, at this stage of his career are probably the people that play. But everybody better enjoy it, because it might be a long time before anybody does anything like this after all he’s been through.’’

It has taken the Broncos almost a year to get from last season’s playoff disappointment to where they are right now. From a double-overtime shocker against the Ravens to what Texans interim head coach Wade Phillips called the “best season ever’’ for a quarterback.

In 15 games, Manning has broken the single-season record for touchdown passes and is 265 yards from tying the single-season record for passing yards, and the Broncos now are 18 points from setting a single-season scoring record.

The Broncos are 28 points from being the league's first 600-point team, and they have five players who have scored at least 10 touchdowns, two 1,000-yard receivers, a 1,000-yard rusher and one medical marvel at quarterback. Manning finished his work Sunday a long way -- something on the order of a football light year -- from a hospital bed with questions swirling in his mind about whether the NFL would still be a part of his life when his recovery had gone as far as it would go.

Asked whether even he would have believed, in those days and weeks immediately following the Sept. 11, 2011, surgery to remove a herniated disc from his spinal cord, that he would throw 51 touchdown passes in a season, Manning said: "No, probably not. I had no real expectations, because I couldn’t really get any doctor, or anyone, to give me some sort of gauge or timetable or strength recovery, and believe me, I asked every question you possibly could. A lot of them said maybe it would come back to this level, it may not, there was definitely some wait and see. ... But it would be hard to say you could have imagined this at that point.’’

It would be hard to imagine for most anyone not named Manning, Brees or Brady, at any point in any year. The record will show Manning finished 32-of-51 passing for 400 yards to go with four touchdowns against the Texans.

It will show it came in a game that was 16-13 earlier in the fourth quarter, a game that was Manning's 12th game of the season with at least 300 yards passing, his fourth game of the season with at least 400 yards passing and his eighth game of the season with at least four touchdown passes.

Or as Bailey put it: “Ridiculous, ridiculous, ridiculous. It just shows you what the guy is made of, what he’s about.’’

The tough part, however, whether the Broncos like it or not, accept it or not, is still coming. They signed Manning, after all, not only to topple some history, but to chase Super Bowl wins and put some additional hardware in the team’s lobby.

And as frustrating as it has been for those who get signed checks from Broncos owner Pat Bowlen to listen to folks continually say nothing else matters, that all-or-nothing mantra lives in the public domain, even as the Broncos have continued to do astounding things on offense that are worthy of appreciation.

There also are lingering questions about the Broncos' defense, questions about the special teams. Questions that grew bigger with a left knee injury to Broncos linebacker Von Miller that many with the team are not optimistic about, as well as a 51-yard return by the Texans, and yet another muffed punt from Denver return man Trindon Holliday.

There also is some slightly unfinished business when the Broncos play for home-field advantage in Oakland next Sunday, a win they will need to force everyone else in the AFC’s playoff field to come chase them around at 5,280 feet.

“Right now it’s about getting ourselves set up just right for the next season, and that’s the playoffs,’’ safety Mike Adams said. “We need to do everything we can to get everything in line for that. Concentrate on Oakland, enjoy this, enjoy what happened [Sunday], but get ready for Oakland. This team knows how to go about it; we’ll get our minds right for what’s to come.’’

But those are questions for another day. For now, for this moment, there are touchdowns and history.

There is the maybe-never-again feel that came with a quarterback’s 51st touchdown pass in a single season. A quarterback with spinal fusion hardware in his neck, a knee brace and an ankle brace.

A quarterback who didn’t know what the future would hold grabbing yet another piece of history.

"My dad [Ron, a retired Navy SEAL] told me a long time ago it's always important to dream dreams and pay the price to make them come true,'' coach John Fox said. "But this is the dream edge of that saying."

“And that’s, like I said, unbelievable,’’ Bailey said. “And he’ll be in there [Monday] getting ready to go for more. I always approach it like that, but when a guy like Peyton does that, that means everybody else has to do it, too. We all need to get ready to go for more.’’

Broncos' Mike Adams makes 'play of day'

December, 22, 2013
videoHOUSTON -- While at least one of the footballs Peyton Manning threw for a touchdown Sunday will be on the way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the coming days, yet that play was not Manning’s pick as the most important in the Broncos' 37-13 victory against the Houston Texans Sunday.

Manning’s selection wasn’t even anything the Broncos did on offense.

No, when it came to a play Manning singled out following the Broncos' 12th victory of the season it was an interception by safety Mike Adams on the second play of the fourth quarter.

“Mike Adams’ interception, in my opinion, was the play of the day,’’ Manning said. “We were in a little rut on both sides of the ball and that really spring-boarded the whole team.’’

The final score and Manning’s record day may have camouflaged that thought. But with 14 minutes, 21 seconds left in the game Sunday, the Broncos held just a 16-13 lead and the Texans had a first-and-10 at their own 20-yard line with the Broncos having put three consecutive three-and-outs on offense in the third quarter.

Texans quarterback Matt Schaub tried to fit the ball in up the right sideline to rookie wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Adam cut in front of Hopkins, snatched the ball out of the air and got toe-tapped to get both feet in-bounds.

“I just read the quarterback’s eyes and I jumped it,’’ Adams said. “Definitely was a game-changer, we just started getting things rolling after that.’’

“I probably forced that one on the sideline,’’ Schaub said. “ … I just scrambled, tried to make a play, probably better just throwing it away in that situation, but in this type of game, we ought to go try to make plays.’’

Adams joked after the game he was able to get his feet in-bounds because he watched his daughter Maya in ballet classes.

"You weren’t supposed to be listening to that,’’ Adams said with a laugh. “Watching my daughter do baller all the time, that’s how I got my feet in.’’

The play did seem the snap things in line for the Broncos on both sides of the ball. The Broncos offense turned Adams’ play into a touchdown in just two plays later, for a 23-13 lead.

“Points off turnovers, that’s what you always want,’’ Adams said. “That’s the goal, give the ball back to Peyton and our offense and get points. That’s how it works.’’

The Broncos then scored on their next two possessions as well. The Broncos defense, though it had some frustrating moments of a missed tackle or two to go with a Texans receiver running free too many times for defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s liking, finished with a better than it had had much of the time this season. The Texans’ 13 points amounted to the fewest the Broncos have allowed in any game this season as Houston finished with just 240 yards.

“We always pride ourselves on making strides, just getting better every week,’’ Adams said. “This is a stepping stone to the next season to come ... and that’s the playoffs.’’

Texans didn't like allowing record

December, 22, 2013
HOUSTON -- Coming into this game, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning would break the NFL's single-season record for passing touchdowns. The only question was, "When?"

For three quarters the Texans defense played in a way that could have won the game. They gave up a lot of yards in the first half, but only one touchdown. They did neither in the second half, holding Manning to three three-and-outs and another slightly longer drive that also resulted in a punt.

But in the fourth quarter Manning turned on the show he's broadcast all season.

"I would have to say Peyton Manning found a way there at the end," Texans defensive end Antonio Smith said.

Smith was asked if that was the best version of Manning he's ever faced and he said it was.

Manning broke the touchdown record with the game soundly in hand. The Broncos led the Texans 30-13, and then Manning made it clear that winning wasn't his only goal today.

It burned at Smith, but he took it in the well-reasoned way.

"That has to raise some fight in you," Smith said. "But as a true football player, that's what football is. That's what his job is to do. He wants to be great. It's his job to try to be great, no matter how it makes anybody else feel. This is football. We're grown men. It's our job to stop them. It's his job to break records."

There wasn't one player who said publicly that Manning going for the record with the game in hand was out of line. Texans interim head coach Wade Phillips said it surprised him that they were still so aggressive.

"I was surprised, but they threw it deep late in the game," Phillips said. "But that's part of football."

Brooks Reed said he didn't see it that way, "Our job is to stop him. His job is to compete. He wants to be the greatest. He's going to go for a record. It's our job to stop him."

Shiloh Keo said simply: "They don't run the ball. Peyton Manning likes to throw it."
HOUSTON -- Amid the postgame swirl of players, coaches and cameras on the field, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub found the man in whose shadow he has played for years.

He congratulated Peyton Manning for setting an NFL record for the most touchdown passes in a single season, before returning to the Texans' locker room.

The Matt Schaub era has likely ended in Houston. What's likely the last pass he'll throw as the home starting quarterback at Reliant Stadium was a deep ball that resulted in an interception.

"It has definitely crossed my mind," Schaub said. "I didn't want to think too far ahead, but you know, I've played this game long enough. I know how things work, so you know it definitely crossed my mind."

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
AP Photo/Patric SchneiderIt's difficult to imagine Matt Schaub returning next season after arguably his worst season in Houston.
He came into the game with a chance at redemption, though probably not one that could have extended his career in Houston.

His teammates and interim head coach asked for mercy from a disgruntled fan base. They weren't trying to spare his feelings, though that does matter to them. Rather, last time they did that in Reliant Stadium, many fans disrupted the Texans' offense with their boos.

There weren't boos this time around. At this point in the season, apathy has taken over. By the time Schaub threw that second interception, most of the remaining fans were people dressed in orange, trickling down the stands as close to the field and Manning's exit as they could get.

Who could have predicted it would end like this?

Certainly not the Texans, who awarded Schaub an extension worth $62 million with $24.75 million guaranteed the day before the 2012 season began. Sure, they protected themselves a bit -- they don't owe Schaub any guarantees after this season -- but you don't give that kind of contract to a player you don't believe can help you accomplish your goals.

With better receiving options and better protection, they thought, the Texans would pick right back up where last season ended and Schaub might return to the solid play he showed many times during a 12-4 2012 campaign. He was never Peyton Manning, he would never be Peyton Manning. But this Texans team didn't necessarily need that.

They got the good Matt Schaub in comeback bids in the first two games of the season. He began his pick-six streak against Tennessee in Week 2, but that pick-six only preceded an effective game-tying drive by Schaub. Worth noting here, too, is that Arian Foster (now on injured reserve) gutted out the two-point conversion after the touchdown to send the game to overtime.

That was the last time positivity graced this team.

The pick-sixes continued, the anger toward Schaub increased, the first benching came at the end of Schaub's worst game of the season in San Francisco. They let him play again the next week before begging for a spark from Case Keenum.

Today, Schaub's first pick broke the dam against which Manning pushed. Schaub threw to rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who went out instead of in, expecting Schaub's pass to go there. They haven't played together much in so long that their chemistry wasn't right.

Broncos safety Mike Adams picked off the pass and returned it 3 yards to the Texans' 28-yard line. It only took Manning two plays to throw his second touchdown pass of the day. It was his first of three fourth-quarter touchdown passes, the last a record-setting score.

Schaub will leave with the personal respect of teammates who know how hard it is to lose your starting job. Even the player with whom he had his most animated public spat ultimately offered encouragement.

"Matt's a great player," Andre Johnson said. "I think if he's not here, he'll get another opportunity. Matt can start in this league."

He did it for seven seasons with a team that will now try to take the step without him that they never quite could with him.

Rapid Reaction: Houston Texans

December, 22, 2013

HOUSTON -- Thoughts from the Houston Texans' 37-13 loss to the Denver Broncos at Reliant Stadium:

What it means: Nothing, really. A win Sunday would have given the Texans something to feel happy about for a little bit and provided a source of pride at stalling an explosive offense. They've come to terms with the fact that they aren't accomplishing their bigger goals this season; now it's just a matter of making it through one more game before the recovery can begin.

Stock watch: Texans quarterback Matt Schaub entered Sunday's game with a chance at a bit of redemption. He missed the Week 7 game in Kansas City thanks to a foot and ankle injury. While he was out, his backup's performance gave the Texans a spark, former head coach Gary Kubiak thought, which was enough to earn Case Keenum the new role as the Texans' starter. This week Keenum was sidelined as he recovered from a thumb injury that included ligament damage. In what might have been Schaub's final game at Reliant Stadium, he offered a familiar performance. Some good moments, some shaky ones and two interceptions -- one of which opened the door for Peyton Manning's second of four touchdowns in the game.

Defense flips script: For the first three quarters, the Texans' defense was playing what might be its best game of the season. It gave up a ton of yards -- including 355 in the first half -- but only one touchdown out of all of it. Denver went into halftime with a tenuous 16-6 lead that became a 16-13 lead in the third quarter. The Broncos went three-and-out three times and punted four times in the third quarter.

Show of respect: Several Texans congratulated Manning for breaking the single-season touchdown record with 51, starting with punter Shane Lechler, then defensive end J.J. Watt. Andre Johnson exchanged a few words with Manning, as did Texans owner Bob McNair. Manning threw four touchdowns and had 400 yards.

What's next: A trip to Nashville to play the Tennessee Titans, then the merciful end to what has been a nightmarish season for the Texans.

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

December, 22, 2013

HOUSTON -- A few thoughts on the Denver Broncos' 37-13 win over the Houston Texans:

What it means: On a day when things were tougher than many had anticipated, the Broncos got the division title they wanted as well as a first-round bye by virtue of the win and Kansas City's loss to Indianapolis.

Stock watch: Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning came into the game on the doorstep of several single-season records, including touchdowns and passing yards. He threw his 48th, 49th, 50th and 51st touchdown passes of the season to break the record set by Tom Brady in 2007. And while the Texans were effective much of the day, slowing the Broncos to field goals in the red zone, Manning still had 296 yards passing by halftime on the way to his 12th 300-yard game of the season. It was also his eighth game of the season with at least four touchdown passes.

Mix and match: The Broncos continued to stir things up on defense with a bevy of personnel groupings as they try to search for answers on the brink of the postseason. They rotated several players at safety depending on down and distance, used Jeremy Mincey at defensive end just five days after he signed with the team, and had Champ Bailey in the lineup for just the fourth time this season. Bailey didn’t play in the base defense but did appear in all of the specialty packages.

Miller injured: Broncos linebacker Von Miller left the game in the middle of the first quarter with a left knee injury and didn’t return. Miller will be evaluated on Monday, but his absence could be seen in the team’s pass rush, and it would be a significant concern if he misses time. The Broncos struggled to get pressure with four rushers after Miller’s departure and had to take far more chances to get to Matt Schaub, adding defensive backs to the mix. It left some openings in coverage, and that trade-off will be an issue if Miller is out for any significant time.

What’s next: The Broncos wrap up the regular season in Oakland against a Raiders team limping to the finish. The Broncos would like to end the regular season as healthy as possible, but they haven’t always been sharp down the stretch and need to smooth out a few rough edges. That's especially true on defense, where they continue to look for the groupings that will give them some success.