The Texans failed to win one of their biggest games that they have faced in the past few years against the Jaguars, falling behind then in the divisional race and now they face a Denver team that has won five straight and aim to become the 5th team since 1990 to begin a season 0-3 and still qualify for the postseason.
Led by defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, the Broncos have an opportunity to find the largest in-season improvement of any team in league history with respect to points allowed.
After allowing 36.2 points per contest over the season’s first five games (remember they were ethered for 70 points by the Dolphins in Week 3) the Broncos have surrendered just 16.5 per contest since then, a 19.7-point difference. The biggest part of that turnaround has been the ability to take the ball away from the opposition and they lead the NFL with 22 takeaways.
The Broncos 15 takeaways over the last four games are their most in a four-game span since 1989, when Denver earned a berth in Super Bowl XXIV.
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This week they’ll face rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud, who has done a great job of protecting the ball. He ranks second in the NFL with 3,266 yards passing and has thrown 19 touchdown passes with just five interceptions. He’s the first rookie in NFL history with 300 passing yards in four consecutive games. Stroud also has five games with at least 300 passing yards and two touchdown passes but he’ll need to be careful with the ball here against the much improved Denver defence.
This game is surprisingly very important in the AFC playoff picture as both teams sit at 6-5 with paths to a playoff berth. Starsports.bet have the Texans -2.5 favourites for this game and it’s worth noting that Houston are 0-4 against the point spread as a favourite this season compared to 5-2 against the spread as an underdog.
While the Texans failed in their bid to sweep Jacksonville and take control of the AFC South, they were still in a 24-21 game with the ball late on the game last week and fell agonisingly short of sending the game to overtime when their backup kicker hit the crossbar with a 58-yard field goal attempt that ended the game. It wasn’t just that late miss that led to the defeat though for the Texans, the offensive line had a poor day leading to Stroud getting sacked four times and lots other mistakes crept in that killed promising drives on several occasions. It should be remembered that they are a young team, with a rookie quarterback and a head coach who is also in his first year in that role.
The Texans will have some decisions to make this week in terms of how they approach this game as their strongest asset on offence plays right into the hands of their opponent. Denver’s run defence has struggled all season and has been exploited in major ways on a few occasions. However, the Houston run game hasn’t been at its best this year and it’s very much on the ground that the Broncos can be exploited a factor that has been masked during their winning spree as the majority of the sides they have faced have lacked the personnel to exploit that weakness.
Although former lead running back Dameon Pierce returned from injury last week the Texans preferred to remain with Devin Singeltary, with latter out snapping the former 49-11, but Pierce did have six touches on his snaps, carrying the ball one fewer time than Singletary did. To have a chance of winning this game the Texans need to run the ball far more effectively than they did last week where they had just a total 91 yards on the ground with 47 yards of that coming via Stroud’s legs and just 32 from the combined efforts pf Pierce and Singletary.
Where Singletary had a massive edge against Pierce was in the passing game. He ran 34 pass routes to Pierce’s five, catching 6-of-7 targets for 54 yards, all season highs. Denver has shored up things defending the pass, but they are still getting gashed in the run game. Even removing the Miami game entirely from their resume, Denver are allowing a league-high 5.3 yards per carry to running backs. Denver are allowing a league-high 79.0 explosive rushing yards per game.
The passing game though has been the catalyst for Houston offence this year though and the Texans are averaging 7.2 yards per passing play, third in the league. Quarterback CJ Stroud has been the focus of that pass game success and appears to be running away with the Offensive Rookie of the Year award and some people have even thrown his name around in the MVP race and that’s hardly surprising given the way that he’s been playing. He ranks No. 7 in the NFL in touchdown passes (19) and No. 2 in yards per pass attempt (8.4). This should be a strong litmus test as Stroud has faced four straight opponents that are 20th in the league or lower in yards allowed per pass attempt and the Broncos will be a far tougher test.
From Weeks 9-12, the Broncos have held opposing quarterbacks to a Quarterback Rating (QBR) of 31.9 (fourth lowest) and are keeping opposing offences to 18.0 points per game (13th lowest). But Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud has a QBR of 68.3 (fifth best) during that same span. So, we are looking at a strength-on-strength contest here unless Houston change their gameplan and decide to get their run game going.
Denver as noted are giving up chunks of yardage on the ground but have allowed just 6.4 yards per pass attempt since Week 5, which is seventh in the league. That includes facing the Chiefs Patrick Mahomes twice and the Bills Josh Allen. Last week despite Stroud registering another 300 yard plus game the offensive line needs to keep him upright and clean as he’s a much better passer from a clean pocket than when he’s getting pressure. Given that he’s on a run of 300 yard passing games it’s hardly surprising to see Stroud as one five quarterbacks who are priced in single figures in the Star Sports Specials Market “Most Passing Yards On Sunday”, Stroud is an 8-1 chance with Miami QB Tua Tagovailoa favourite at 5-1.
Stroud’s two primary targets have been wide receivers Tank Dell and Nico Collins. Dell, another rookie has been particularly productive but has featured on the Texans injury report this week but is expected to play. Dell caught 5-of-8 targets for 50 yards and his seventh touchdown of the season on Sunday, but his day was cut shorter than it could have been. Dell had a 62-yard reception wiped away by an illegal shift and had another 20-yard reception ruled incomplete when he was clearly in bounds but he did score another TD, his fourth game in a row with a score. Collins faced a slight stutter in the middle of the season but has emerged strongly of late and had 104 yards receiving last week against the Jags, also scoring a TD. He could attract the attentions of the Broncos top cornerback Patrick Surtain but it’s a Texans passing attack that has been humming along and should be respected.
It’s a shame that they have lost TE Dalton Schultz to injury as he had a great rapport with Stroud but they may have found a decent and under the radar replacement in Brevin Jordan. Denver have defended tight ends poorly and Jordan dominated Week 12 tight end snaps following Schultz’s departure and on the year has caught six of seven targets from Stroud for 60 yards and a touchdown. Jordan might be an interesting dart throw in starsports.bet Anytime TD Scorer Market at 7-2.
It won’t be a surprise here to see the Texans run a offence that is a little more conservative and balanced than usual. While the Broncos are playing well defensively at the moment they have to a certain extent been dependent on their opponents making mistakes and leaving them with advantageous field positions. This should be quite the chess match and balancing act for the Texans offence as they try to build a lead without giving the Broncos short fields.
Much of the credit for the Denver rejuvenation has to go to their defence which has held six straight opponents to 22 or fewer points and forcing 15 turnovers in their last four games. However, against a side like the Texans they may need to produce more on offence although to their credit all of those wins have come against sides with credible records.
Much of the focus on the Broncos offence will fall on QB Russell Wilson who can hardly claim to have been a success since his move from Seattle. Through 11 games under Denver head coach Sean Payton, Wilson is averaging 199.9 passing yards per game, his lowest since his 2012 rookie season in Seattle (194.9). Wilson’s 6.9 yards per attempt is the lowest of his career and would be his first season under 7.0. To his credit though he is proving efficient even if he is being used in a more “game manager” role he has five straight starts with a passing touchdown and no interceptions, the longest active streak in the NFL and third-longest streak of his career behind a six-game streak in 2020 and a seven-game run in 2019. Wilson has an NFL-best 20-4 touchdown-interception ratio this season.
The Broncos are one of only twelve NFL teams who throw the ball on fewer than 60% of their offensive plays and it’s very much a risk free offence who much prefer to protect and run the ball off the short fields that they defence has given them. Wilson hasn’t cleared 260 passing yards since Week 3 and faces a Texans defence that have allowed the NFL’s third-fewest passing touchdowns (11). The highest volume of the work in the Broncos backfield comes via Javonte Williams with Samaje Perine and Jaleel McLaughlin also involved. It’s Williams who gets the lion’s share of the opportunities though whether that is in the shape of carries or targets in the passing game with Wilson checking down to short passes to his running backs on plenty of occasions.
Williams hasn’t been particularly efficient on the ground for instance he had 21 touches last week and turned those into just 71 yards. Williams has now rushed 77 times for 266 yards (3.5 YPC) over his past four games. The fact that the opposition know that that the Broncos pass at a lesser rate than most in the NFL has led to Williams facing a lot of loaded fronts and it could well be the same scenario this time around, Houston are allowing a league-low 3.39 yards per carry to running backs. Williams is priced at 16-1 in the starsports.bet special market “Most Rushing Yards On Sunday” but are several that would make more appeal with Rachaad White 12-1 and Bijan Robinson 16-1 of the Buccaneers and Falcons respectively making more appeal in a competitive market.
In this contest, because of the way the Texans play they may have to let Wilson loose a little more because if the turnovers on defence ebb away, can this style of offence contend with a good offence and win a shootout?
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Courtland Sutton has been the main receiver in the aerial game for the Broncos but he’s been kept relatively quiet or is it underused in the majority of his starts as he’s only once gone over 70 yards receiving in 2 games although he has scored eight TD’s this year and been targeted in the red zone 14 times. The Texans have had more problems this season covering receivers with the profile of Jerry Jeudy who although he has been a major disappointment so far year has a good matchup here and this might be a game where he can come back to some sort of form.
Turnovers are going to be a major factor in this game as they have been in all the Denver games since they began their winning streak. The Broncos will want to play conservatively on offence, extend drives and control the clock. In that situation, it will be the Texans offence who will drive the game flow if they can take care of the ball and Stroud they are likely to score points and force the Broncos to chase the game and that would open the game up.
If, however, Houston struggles offensively early and this game stays low scoring throughout the first half then we are likely in for a disappointing finish on the scoreboard. Let’s hope that it’s the former scenario that takes place with Stroud outgunning Wilson and the young Texans side getting back on track and nearer the shot at the playoffs that their play deserves this season.
BACK C.J Stroud over +268.5 passing yards 1pt at 10/11 (⭐
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BACK Devin Singletary over +55.5 rushing yards 1pt at 10/11 (⭐
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BACK Javonte Williams over +59.5 rushing yards 1pt at 10/11 (⭐
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BACK Courtland Sutton to score a TD anytime 1pt at 6/4 (⭐
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PROFIT/LOSS (DEC 2023): PROFIT 7.22 points