ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – Teams swear they don’t look at their opponents’ records. Rankings are another story.
By that measure, the Denver Broncos see one of the league’s top teams in the Houston Texans, who have lost their last dozen games and plenty of their best players to injuries.
The Texans (2-12) own the NFL’s 11th-best offense and fourth-best defense, and they’re ranked second against the pass.
That puts them right up there with the Broncos (11-3) and Seattle Seahawks (12-2), the two teams that oddsmakers favor to reach the Super Bowl.
“I think they are a great team,” Broncos linebacker Von Miller insisted.
Don’t laugh, Peyton Manning said.
Eight of Houston’s losses were by a touchdown or less.
“We don’t look at records, we look at the tape,” said Manning. “On offense, we see a good defense. We see some outstanding players when you’re talking about guys like (Antonio) Smith and (J.J.) Watt, guys that can dominate a football game.”
With Matt Schaub starting for the first time since Oct. 13 in place of injured Case Keenum, Denver’s defenders see the same quarterback who threw four touchdown passes in Houston’s win over the Broncos last season.
A lot has changed since then.
Manning found his footing, going 23-5 since that 31-25 loss on Sept. 23, 2012. He’s four TD passes shy of breaking Tom Brady’s single-season record of 50 and is favored to win his fifth MVP award with the Broncos once again jockeying for prime playoff position.
Schaub has been benched, booed at home and enters Sunday’s game without four members of his supporting cast who helped him win at Denver last year. Kevin Walker was cut in the offseason, and Arian Foster, Owen Daniels and Ben Tate are all on IR.
In his last cameo appearance at home, against Oakland a month ago, Schaub was booed so loudly that the Texans had to use a silent count on some snaps.
The Broncos simply see a good team that’s had a run of bad luck.
“We’re gearing up for a challenge, a good football team that’s maybe had a rough year, but still a very talented football team that’s very capable,” Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said.
Watt’s sacks have gone down from 20 1/2 last season to 9 1/2 this year, but the Broncos contend this is another case where the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
“I’m looking at 42 quarterback hits,” Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. “The sack numbers are irrelevant because he makes teams get rid of the ball quicker. … I don’t know how he gets there so quickly. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The Broncos are favored by double digits Sunday, but then again they were big favorites last Thursday night against San Diego and lost 27-20 to the Chargers at home.
“That loss kind of woke us up,” Miller said. “It’s unfortunate that we had to have a loss to get that sense of urgency but I think the sense of urgency is getting back. We know what we can do. We’ve been preaching all year what type of team that we have and what we’re capable of. It’s about that time for us to start putting it out there on the field.”
The Broncos still own the tiebreaker over the Kansas City Chiefs (11-3) in the AFC West but they can ill afford another slip-up. There was a decidedly different tone at practice after their truncated week leading up to kickoff on the final Thursday night game of the season.
“I think we do better with a full week of practice,” Manning said.
And after losses.
After their last four defeats in the regular season, the Broncos have won by an average of 18 points the following week.
Notes: Coach John Fox said Wes Welker (concussion) has been running in the weight room this week and “he’s feeling better every day.” … DE Derek Wolfe also has been working out to regain his strength and stamina. He suffered seizure-like symptoms on Nov. 29. … It looks like CB Champ Bailey will play in the nickel and dime packages Sunday. He’s missed a career-high 11 games with a nagging foot injury but said Thursday he isn’t thinking about retirement. “Oh no,” he said laughing. “I’m thinking about winning on Sunday.”
By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
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