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Three Keys Unlocked: Broncos at Texans

Posted Dec 22, 2013

Independent Analyst Andrew Mason takes a look back at his three keys to the game.

HOUSTON -- Highlight films and tomes on the history of professional football will celebrate Sunday's 37-13 win over the Texans because it included Peyton Manning's league-record 51st touchdown pass of 2013.

But for the Broncos, the more immediate and potentially lasting impact of the game rested in the team's ability to shake free of a mid-game funk and play arguably its most dominant quarter of the season, a 21-0 closing flourish of opportunistic defense and overwhelming offense that squelched all Texans momentum and made a tight game a runaway.

Given the home loss to San Diego 10 days earlier, there was cause for concern after the Broncos went three-and-out on three consecutive series to start the third quarter, allowing the Texans to claw back into the game.

But the defense, maligned by injuries -- the latest of which was suffered by Von Miller -- didn't simply rise to the occasion; it made the special occasion of the day possible. First, it notched back-to-back sacks to push the Texans out of field-goal range late in the third quarter, preventing a potential 16-all deadlock. Then, after another Broncos punt, Terrance Knighton, Shaun Phillips and Nate Irving pressured Matt Schaub into an errant throw that Mike Adams intercepted.

 "I read the quarterback's eyes. I see a wheel route coming, and he just stopped out of nowhere," Adams said. "I read the quarterback's eyes, and I got a good jump on the ball."

"We needed to make some plays, and Mike Adams got us started," said cornerback Champ Bailey. "When he got that pick, things just turned up from there. There was no looking back.”

Without the pressure and Adams' quick reaction, the offense might not have been in position to dice up the Texans in the fourth quarter, Manning might not yet have his league record and the Broncos might be faced with the same questions with which they dealt last week.

Instead, Manning has a mark he cherished because it stands as a "team accomplishment," the Broncos have more points through 15 games than anyone else in league history, they've clinched their third consecutive division title and a first-round bye, and they displayed a creative, blitzing attack that could serve them well in the future.

Not a bad day.

1. WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE:

Until the fourth quarter, this was a stalemate. The Broncos had not given away the football, thus doing what the offense needed to do against a defense that had forced just 10 takeaways this year, the fewest in the league. Then came Adams' interception.

"That was a huge play in the game, for sure," said Broncos coach John Fox.

You could almost feel the optimism of Houston's fans evaporating, replaced by the grim reality that their team was about to crumble again, as it had for the previous 12 games, six of which were at home. The number that defines the Texans' lost season is their turnover margin: a ghastly minus-17.

2. PROTECT PEYTON MANNING.

The quarterback's pocket wasn't completely clean, as J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus worked the edges and knocked Denver's passing game off-rhythm in the third quarter. Manning was hit three times on 12 third-quarter pass plays, including once for a sack, and was 4-of-11 for 32 yards, and nearly had one pass intercepted.

Manning was hit, but deftly avoided the big hit, stepping away from trouble on multiple occasions. His ankle, the subject of so much consternation in November, appears to be much better now. And he was hit just three times in the other three quarters, and the Texans' potent pass rush finished the game with just one sack.

It was a measure of how far the offense has come with Manning at the controls. The pressure that short-circuited the unit in September 2012 never materialized with the same consistency.

3. TAKE WHAT'S THERE ...

Sometimes, the Broncos went short, but after Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph was lost to a foot injury, the Broncos were able to uncork the deep passing game that was absent against San Diego.

There was a bit of dramatic irony regarding Manning and the Broncos going for the record in the fourth quarter by emphasizing deep post routes, corner routes and go routes in the game's final moments, because a re-emphasis on the run was what helped stabilize a listing Broncos offense late in the third quarter and early in the fourth.

Further, the Texans came into the game as one of the league's best at avoiding big plays, permitting just one gain of 20 or more yards every 19.98 plays, the sixth-best ratio in the league. The Broncos blew that away, averaging one such gain every 11.67 plays.