"It's not about coming close," Broncos slot receiver Brandon Stokley said. "That doesn't really count in the NFL."
This was not a game of match-ups for the Broncos. It was a game of mismatches. Kevin Vickerson, the heftiest of Broncos defensive linemen at 330 pounds, was no match when he found himself trying to cover the Texans' Arian Foster, who is one of the NFL's best running backs.
"I should have seen it and got over the top faster," Vickerson said.
Manny Ramirez, a right guard playing in place of the injured Chris Kuper, was not always a good match for J.J. Watt, who is Houston's often-unblockable defensive lineman. Watt entered the game saying he wanted to put "No. 18 on my sack list." Watt put Manning on his list 2½ times.
Tracy Porter, the Broncos' cornerback who is not named Champ Bailey, did not match up well against any Houston receiver. Porter was burned twice on long touchdown passes after it appeared the Broncos' safeties bit on play-action fakes.
"Their coverage matched up with what we were trying to do," said Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, who got the game ball for his courage in returning from a crunching hit by Broncos linebacker Joe Mays and for throwing four touchdown passes. "The play-action and how our run game works, it meshed and jibed pretty well."
The loss stings the Broncos, who fell to 1-2 and dropped a telling game against a Houston team that reinforced itself as the standard of the AFC.
Manning didn't play a bad game, throwing for 330 yards on 26 completions. But he also set a career high with 26 incompletions. Pressured by the Texans throughout, he seemingly couldn't get in sync with his receivers until he rediscovered old standby Stokley in the fourth quarter.
"To beat a team like Houston, coming back, that's not getting it done," Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil said.
After all the video tributes played for late NFL Films producer Steve Sabol and Ring of Fame inductee Rod Smith as part of the game entertainment Sunday, the game seemed to be a film in another dimension of the 2005 Broncos. If not a different dimension, then the 2005 Broncos were dressed up like the 2012 Texans.
Gary Kubiak was the offensive coordinator of the 2005 Broncos who brought a 14-3 record into the AFC championship game that season. Now Kubiak is the head coach of the 3-0 Houston Texans. He brought the zone-blocking rush, play-action pass system back with him to Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
"It did look familiar because we saw it for so many years," Bailey said. "There's not a lot of difference to it. You know what they're going to do and how they try to set it up. It's just if your guys aren't in the right place, they'll beat you."
The Texans' Foster and Tate played a better tailback version of former Broncos Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell. Schaub played a better quarterback version than Jake Plummer.
Andre Johnson was a better receiver version than check that. This was Rod Smith's day. No receiver is better than Rod Smith on Rod Smith Ring of Fame Day.
Problem was, Smith's halftime speech was the highlight of the afternoon. At the half, Foster and Tate had led a Texans running attack that averaged 6.6 yards per carry. With less than six minutes left in the first half, Schaub had a 158.3 passer rating. There is no 158.4.
Schaub had three touchdowns by halftime as he continually caught the Broncos' pass coverage peaking in on the fake handoff in the Houston backfield.
"Our scheme was good. We just had blown assignments," Dumervil said. "We can't pick and choose when to blow an assignment and give up big plays every other play. We can't win like that."
With the Broncos up 5-0 early on Dumervil's sack for a safety and a Matt Prater field goal, Schaub put the Texans up with one big play. A play-action fake helped Johnson sprint clear of Porter. Johnson hauled in the well-thrown Schaub heave for a 60-yard touchdown play and a lead, at 7-5, that it never relinquished.
The Texans were more methodical and perhaps more impressive on their next drive, traveling 97 yards in 14 plays.
Next Houston possession, second play. Again, Schaub faked a handoff. Again, a Texans receiver beat Porter in one-on-one coverage. This time, it was Kevin Walter who caught the Schaub deep ball for a 52-yard touchdown play and a 21-5 lead.
Porter, the AFC defensive player of the week in Week 1, left the game with a knee injury before halftime.
Expectations of grandeur that came with Manning's arrival in March have now been reduced to: Better worry about beating the Oakland Raiders next Sunday. After the Raiders, the Broncos play road games at New England and at San Diego.
There is one thing, a word, that goes with the Broncos' current predicament. Gulp!
"It's not the ideal situation," Manning said. "Everybody would love to be 3-0, but that's not the way it is right now. We've got to keep fighting, find a way to correct some of these mistakes." Texans 31, Broncos 25
Houston 7 14 10 0 31
Denver 5 6 0 14 25
Den • Dumervil safety, 13:20.
Den • FG Prater 32, 8:41.
Hou • Johnson 60 pass from Schaub (S.Graham kick), 6:28.
Hou • Foster 3 pass from Schaub (S.Graham kick), 10:47.
Hou • Walter 52 pass from Schaub (S.Graham kick), 8:54.
Den • FG Prater 23, 5:44.
Den • FG Prater 53, :01.
Hou • FG S.Graham 41, 9:11.
Hou • Daniels 14 pass from Schaub (S.Graham kick), 1:33.
Den • Stokley 38 pass from Manning (Prater kick), 9:49.
Den • Dreessen 6 pass from Manning (Prater kick), 3:00.
Attendance • 76,566.
First downs 23 24
Total Net Yards 436 375
Rushes-yards 34-152 21-59
Passing 284 316
Punt Returns 4-19 4-29
Kickoff Returns 1-0 4-84
Interceptions Ret. 0-0 1-7
Comp-Att-Int 17-30-1 26-52-0
Sacked-Yards Lost 1-6 3-14
Punts 5-54.2 8-47.6
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 1-1
Penalties-yards 9-69 7-75
Time of Possession 31:40 28:20
Rushing • Houston, Foster 25-105, Tate 8-26, Martin 1-21. Denver, McGahee 12-36, Ball 7-16, Hillman 2-7.
Passing • Houston, Schaub 17-30-1-290. Denver, Manning 26-52-0-330.
Receiving • Houston, Walter 3-73, Daniels 3-26, Casey 3-11, Johnson 2-72, G.Graham 2-39, Martin 2-20, Jean 1-46, Foster 1-3. Denver, Decker 8-136, Stokley 6-73, D.Thomas 3-34, Tamme 3-31, Dreessen 2-36, Gronkowski 1-11, McGahee 1-6, Ball 1-2, Hillman 1-1.