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Houston Texans vs. Denver Broncos Preview and Prediction

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At one time thought to be the heir apparent to Peyton Manning in Denver, Brock Osweiler returns to Sports Authority Field at Mile High Monday night as Houston’s starting quarterback. The Texans (4-2) currently lead the AFC South while the Broncos (4-2) are looking to snap a two-game losing streak and draw even with the Raiders in the AFC West.

Houston won the AFC South last year, but another early playoff exit (30-0 loss to Kansas City at home in wild card game) led to an offensive overhaul. Osweiler (four years, $72 million, $37 million guaranteed) was the biggest signing, but the Texans also added former Miami running back Lamar Miller in hopes of putting together an offense that could complement one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses, led by three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.

While Houston has gotten off to a good start, the statistics paint a different picture. The offense ranks near the bottom in total yards, passing yards and points per game. The defense has fared better, has been solid against the pass, and has limited teams’ damage on the scoreboard, which is even more impressive when you consider the fact that Watt played in just three games before being placed on injured reserve because of a back injury.

Denver meanwhile won its first four games and at times looked even more impressive and dominant than last year’s Super Bowl championship team. One of the keys to the strong showing out of the gates was the performance of Trevor Siemian, their 2015 seventh-round draft choice, who was seemingly an afterthought in the team’s quarterback plans prior to Manning’s retirement and Osweiler’s departure via free agency.

Siemian has played well in the early going and the defense has been strong once again. But an inconsistent running game, a shoulder injury suffered by Siemian, and some inopportune turnovers have all contributed to this current two-game losing streak.

Houston at Denver

Kickoff: Monday, Oct. 24 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Broncos -6.5

Three Things to Watch

1. QBs in the Spotlight
Denver’s second-round pick (No. 57 overall) in the 2012 draft, Brock Osweiler didn’t see a lot of playing time in his first three seasons. But in 2015, as injuries took their toll on Peyton Manning, Osweiler started seven games; going 5-2 and helping the Broncos win the AFC West and get to Super Bowl 50. With Denver seemingly unwilling to commit to Osweiler following Manning’s retirement, the 25-year-old signed with Houston. Osweiler has helped the Texans get off to a 4-2 start, but he’s yet to find his footing in Bill O’Brien’s offense.

Osweiler has as many touchdowns as interceptions (eight each), is completing less than 60 percent of his passes and ranks near the bottom of all starting quarterbacks in passer rating (74.1). Last week’s fourth-quarter comeback and eventual overtime win at home against Indianapolis helped relieve some of the pressure on Osweiler, but all eyes will be on him tonight in his Mile High Homecoming against a Denver defense that can finally do what it wasn’t able to last year – hit him.

Meanwhile, Trevor Siemian made Broncos fans quickly forgot all about Osweiler, going 4-0 as a first-time starter while looking quite comfortable directing Gary Kubiak’s offense. Siemian was coming off of a 312-yard, four-touchdown performance in Cincinnati when he was knocked out of the game in Tampa Bay with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. He missed the following game, a surprising 23-16 home loss to Atlanta, but was able to return for the Week 6 Thursday night game in San Diego.

Whether it was rust, the shoulder injury still bothering him, or the fact that Kubiak missed the game due to health reasons, Siemian didn’t look like the quarterback he was in the first four games. He completed 30 of 50 passes with a touchdown and didn’t throw an interception, but he finished with just 230 yards for a season-low 4.6 yards per pass attempt as Denver dropped its second straight game. The Broncos just looked out of sync on offense against the Chargers, so it will be interesting to see how the unit, and particularly Siemian, responds tonight.

With Manning no longer in the picture, a different kind of quarterback competition between former teammates will play out tonight on the field. Which understudy to the future Hall of Famer will seize the opportunity to shine in the national spotlight?

2. Miller Time for Houston?
Osweiler may get most of the attention (money gets people talking), but signing Lamar Miller was just as important a piece to Houston’s offseason puzzle. Deciding to move on from former NFL rushing champion Arian Foster, the Texans turned to Miller, who never got the opportunity to be a workhorse running back in his four seasons in Miami. Last year, Miller got 194 rushing attempts in 16 games for the Dolphins. In his first six games in Houston, Miller already has accumulated 125 carries, putting him on pace for more than 330 if he plays all 16 games.

Prior to last week’s game against Indianapolis, Miller had seen plenty of volume, but not a ton of success. He was averaging 3.7 yards per carry in his first five games and hadn’t scored a touchdown. Then against the Colts last Sunday night, Miller exploded for 149 yards on 24 carries (6.2 ypc) and scored his first two touchdowns in a Texans uniform. Houston will need more of this type of production from Miller tonight against a Denver defense that has not been as stout against the run as it has the pass.

3. Miller Time for Denver?
One Bronco defender that you know Osweiler will be keeping a close eye on, especially when he drops back to pass, will be Von Miller. Osweiler knows firsthand how the Super Bowl 50 MVP can impact a game, even if he’s never been hit by him. Miller enters this game with 7.5 sacks, just a half-sack behind the leader (Buffalo’s Lorenzo Alexander). As a team, Denver is tied (with Buffalo) for the NFL lead in sacks with 21 even though it is one of the last to play in Week 7. Houston has a done a good job keeping Osweiler upright (12 sacks allowed), but the Texans’ quarterback knows it’s not just about Miller bringing him down to the turf. Osweiler needs to make sure he still has the football when he hits it. To his credit, Osweiler has yet to lose a fumble this season, but he’s never faced Miller or any other Bronco defender wearing anything but a red, non-contact jersey. We will find out quickly just how much Osweiler learned taking part in all of those practices with Miller and Co.

Final Analysis

Instead of possibly quarterbacking the defending Super Bowl champions, Brock Osweiler returns to Denver with different expectations after signing a lucrative free-agent contract to be the man in Houston. The Broncos would like nothing more to add to their former teammate’s early-season struggles and snap their two-game losing streak in the process. Trevor Siemian and Denver’s offense would like to get off to a quick start, and the Texans’ 29th-ranked rushing defense could be just what C.J. Anderson, Devonate Booker and the Broncos’ offensive line need to find their rhythm. Houston’s defense has held up pretty well without J.J. Watt, especially against the pass, but Denver’s defense still has its playmaker extraordinaire in Von Miller, not to mention one of the deepest and most talented secondaries in the NFL. It may not be pretty, but the Broncos treat Osweiler to a rough homecoming as the reigning champs get back to their winning ways.

NFL Power Rankings: Broncos

Prediction: Broncos 27, Texans 20

(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)