The Week 9 matchup between the Houston Texans and the Denver Broncos features two teams heading in opposite directions. After Houston started the season 0-3, it looked like Bill O’Brien would be the first head coach fired this season. Since their five-point loss to the lowly Giants in Week 3, though, the Texans have rattled off five straight wins and are now in full control of the AFC South by two games. With their remaining schedule featuring just one team currently above .500 (Washington), the Texans now have a legitimate shot at not only winning their division, but also earning a first-round bye in the playoffs.
While the Texans have begun to take off, the Broncos are coming back down to earth. After starting 2-0, Denver has lost five of its last six games, including a stretch of four straight losses before beating the two-win Arizona Cardinals two weeks ago. The Broncos are a team in flux, caught between fighting for their season and preparing for their future. Denver is currently in third place in the AFC West behind the Chiefs and Chargers, who have as many combined losses as the Broncos do wins. Denver is at a crossroads heading into this game, the outcome of which may determine the fate of the rest of the season, and the long-term future of the Broncos.
Houston at Denver
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 4 at 4:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Denver -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The continued growth of Deshaun Watson
The 2018 season didn’t start out the way Watson had hoped. After missing the final nine games of his breakout rookie season with a torn ACL, Watson came into this year as the unquestioned leader of the Texans' offense and the franchise’s future. The team’s immediate success, and likely the job security of O’Brien, would depend on his ability to repeat or surpass his inaugural performance.
The Texans would start the season with three straight losses, two of which came against teams that have a combined four wins this season (Titans three, Giants one). Watson was bad in those games, completing only 59 percent of his passes and throwing costly, game-deciding interceptions while only posting an 89.8 quarterback rating.
Since their horrid start, Watson and the Texans have flipped the switch, winning five straight games. Granted, Houston has yet to beat a team with a winning record, but a win is a win in the NFL, and the Texans' 5-3 mark now gives them a two-game lead in the underwhelming AFC South. In the last five weeks, Watson has righted the ship, improving his completion percentage to a healthy 67 percent while throwing 10 touchdowns and boosting his passer rating to 104.4 during the win streak. In a win against Miami last Thursday night, Watson turned in his best performance of the season, completing 16-of-20 passes for 239 yards with five touchdowns.
Perhaps more impressive than the statistical improvement is the fact that Watson has been playing with bruised lungs and ribs since the Texans’ Week 5 win against Dallas. The injury was bad enough to keep him off the team’s charter flight to Jacksonville two weeks ago for fear that the cabin pressure of the plane could inflict further damage. He traveled the 800 miles from Houston to Florida’s Atlantic coast on a team bus. How his body will react in the thin air of Denver with the likes of Von Miller chasing after him will be something to keep an eye on.
2. Welcome to Houston, Demaryius Thomas! (But stay in Denver this week.)
When Houston’s second-leading pass catcher, Will Fuller, went down with a torn ACL last Thursday night against Miami, the Texans' front office knew they had to make a move to replace the third-year wide receiver from Notre Dame. Fuller’s replacement, and the complement to DeAndre Hopkins, wasn’t on the Houston depth chart already. The team's third-leading receiver, rookie Keke Coutee, has shown promise with 21 receptions at 9.3 yards per catch, but he has already been sidelined for four games with two separate hamstring injuries. Backup receivers Vyncint Smith and Sammie Coates have combined for a grand total of six targets and two catches. And running backs Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue (a combined 22 receptions with just one TD) are both reliable check-down targets out of the backfield, but not necessarily game-breakers in the passing game. Houston had to make a move.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Broncos and Texans came to an accord. Thomas and the remaining $17.5 million on his contract for next season would be shipped to Houston for a 2019 fourth-round pick and a swap of seventh-round picks. The Texans were able to replace their second-leading receiver this season in Fuller with the Broncos' second all-time leading receiver in yards (9,055) and touchdown receptions (60) in Thomas. Thomas also was second in receiving this season for the Broncos (36 catches, 402 yards, 11.2 ypc), trailing Emmanuel Sanders in both receptions and yards while matching him with three touchdown catches.
Houston’s trade for another impact receiver was inevitable as soon as Fuller went down. With a two-game division lead, the Texans aren’t just fighting for an AFC South title, but also a potential first-round playoff bye. The loss of Fuller also exposed the Texans’ lack of offensive depth in terms of reliable playmakers, as noted by the production gap of Hopkins and Fuller compared to the other receiving options.
The addition of Thomas gives Watson, who is still clearly still developing as a second-year quarterback, an extremely reliable and big-bodied (6-3, 229) veteran who is still capable of impacting games and should eventually fit well into O’Brien’s more balanced pro-style offense. The only question is how quickly Watson and Thomas will mesh. Since the deal was finalized on Tuesday, that leaves little time for Thomas to become acclimated to the timing of a new offense and an inexperienced quarterback, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Thomas earn minimal targets at first. Surely, Thomas will receive more attention from Watson than he got from Case Keenum in recent weeks, as his targets haven’t topped seven since the second week of the season.
3. What’s next for the Broncos?
Broncos team president and general manager John Elway knew exactly what he was doing this past March when he signed free-agent quarterback Case Keenum to a two-year deal for $36 million. Keenum was coming off a career year with the Vikings, filling in for injured starters Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford, throwing for 3,547 yards and 22 touchdowns and leading Minnesota to the NFC Title game.
The deal signaled to the Broncos fan base that Elway was in win-now mode, and not to panic about the team’s 5-11 mark the season before. But the contract also gave Elway the leeway to move on from Keenum should things not pan out. With the way Keenum is playing this season — he's tied for league lead in interceptions (10) with only 10 touchdown passes, ranking 19th in passing yards per game (263.8) and 28th in QBR (41.4) — the Broncos might be prepping for their long-term future sooner rather than later, and that future likely won’t include Keenum or head coach Vance Joseph.
The performance of Keenum, the move to trade Thomas, Joseph’s inability to beat division foes (0-7 vs. Chiefs) and a 3-5 record has the Broncos walking a fine line in 2018. While they aren’t publicly admitting to throwing in the towel for the season, the franchise can’t claim to be in the win-now mode that Elway was hinting at this spring. Elway’s new mission is to first and foremost revamp his offense, cut ties with veterans on expensive, expiring contracts like Thomas, and build around younger, cheaper players like running backs Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay.
For Thomas, the writing was pretty much on the wall for him and his rather large 2019 cap hit when Elway selected receivers Courtland Sutton (second round) and DaeSean Hamilton (fourth round) in this spring’s draft. Sutton (17 catches, 327 yards, TD, 19.1 ypc), a younger and quicker version of Thomas with big-play ability, figures to see an increased role within the offense lining up opposite Emmanuel Sanders.
If the Broncos have in fact shifted to a total rebuilding mode, they already have two franchise cornerstones and premier pass rushers in linebackers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. Miller (eight sacks) is a once-in-a-generation talent, and Chubb, who leads all rookies in sacks with seven, looks like he could follow in Miller’s footsteps in the coming years. But Miller is in his eighth season, likely heading towards the end of his peak years, and the Broncos defense that just a couple seasons ago was among the best ever statistically now ranks as one of the worst against the rush and could certainly use some fine tuning in the secondary.
Elway may not admit it to the Broncos faithful, but more dramatic changes may be coming to the Mile High football club, and the trading of Thomas before the deadline may just be the beginning. With younger, less experienced players seeing more playing time and four straight games against opponents with winning records upcoming, the Broncos may be thinking about their place in next year’s draft before too long.
The Texans' offense is hitting its stride, averaging nearly 28 points in their last five games (all wins) after averaging fewer than 20 in their first three (all losses). Lamar Miller, Watson and Blue average a combined 133 yards rushing per game and could give Denver’s poor run defense major headaches, especially on third downs when the Texans convert on 65 percent of their running plays. Denver’s best chance to beat Houston has to come via their dangerous pass-rushing duo of Von Miller and Chubb. Watson has been sacked 26 times this season, more than any other AFC quarterback, and he still has a tendency to turn the ball over (7 interceptions, 7 fumbles).
Prediction: Texans 22, Broncos 20
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.