HOUSTON -- In some ways, Houston's 2-12 record is baffling.
Houston ranks 11th in the league in yardage per game and fourth in yardage allowed, the base rankings of offense and defense. That average rank of 7.5 is third-best in the league, surpassed only by the Seahawks and Saints, who are a combined 22-6. In yardage discrepancy, the Texans are plus-54.9 yards per game; only the Saints (plus-84.2), Broncos (plus-81.9) and Seahawks (plus-75.0) are better, and they are a collective 33-9.
But some of the big-picture stats help illuminate the Texans' standing. They are 29th in points per game (18.1) and 25th in points allowed (26.8); the only other teams in the bottom quarter of the league in both categories are the Jaguars and Texans, but both have won twice as many games as the Texans apiece -- and are a combined 3-0 against them.
And most damaging of all, the Texans have allowed seven touchdowns this year off defensive returns. One of every 3.57 returns has directly resulted in a touchdown, more than twice as often as the league average (one every 7.61).
Beating the Texans, therefore, comes down to limiting your mistakes, and forcing the Texans into their own -- and making them pay for them, which is where the three keys to Sunday's game begin:
1. WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE:
This is where the Texans have fallen this year, not just because of their 25 giveaways, but their league-worst 10 takeaways.
During Houston's 12-game losing streak, the Texans have forced just nine turnovers. It's not a coincidence that in the three games they had at least two takeaways, they kept matters close, losing by an average of 2.3 points (and never by more than a field goal). In the nine games during their skid where they had one or no takeaways, Houston lost by an average of 10.9 points.
A spate of giveaways could invigorate the Texans, and it's something the Broncos need to avoid.
2. PROTECT PEYTON MANNING.
And above all, that comes down to keeping J.J. Watt out of the backfield. Watt has a league-leading 42 hits on opposing quarterbacks this year, and with two more, will surpass his 2012 total. Watt's pressure has allowed the Texans to average one hit on an opposing quarterback every 6.97 plays, according to the hits tracked by ProFootballFocus.com.
It will be a team effort, but most of the work will fall on right tackle Orlando Franklin and right guard Louis Vasquez. Vasquez has been exactly what the Broncos hoped and has not allowed a sack this year; he presents arguably the most significant challenge to Watt's ability to break down a pass-protection scheme from the inside.
3. TAKE WHAT'S THERE ...
… and if it's underneath, that's fine. Houston's defense is the league's sixth-best at preventing gains of 20 yards or more, averaging one every 15.1 plays, and has allowed first downs on 30.1 percent of pass plays (ninth-best in the league) and 19.0 percent of run plays (sixth-best). Short gains on first and second downs are acceptable to set up third-and-manageable situations that allow Manning to fire passes within two seconds of the snap, before Watt can make an impact with the pass rush.