Still in good position to claim home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Denver Broncos are poised to move on from last week's humbling defeat.
The visiting Broncos can possibly clinch a division title and the No. 1 seed in the conference when they try to extend the Houston Texans' team-worst losing streak Sunday.
Denver (11-3) entered last Thursday's home game with San Diego averaging league highs of 39.6 points and 465.6 yards, but was held to a season-low 295 while scoring its fewest points of 2013 in a 27-20 loss. Fortunately for the playoff-bound Broncos, New England couldn't overtake them for the top spot in the AFC as it lost to Miami on Sunday.
Tied with Kansas City atop the West Division, Denver owns the tiebreaker after sweeping that season series and can clinch the division with a victory and a Chiefs loss to Indianapolis. The Broncos can secure the No. 1 seed for the second straight season with a win, plus a Kansas City loss and a New England defeat or tie at Baltimore.
"I think it's a little brighter because we know what we've got to do to get home-field advantage: we've just got to keep winning," said receiver Andre Caldwell, who scored both Denver touchdowns against the Chargers.
"Even though we lost, we're still in the same position that we were in before that game. We've just got to handle our business and everything will fall in place."
The Broncos would appear to be in good position going forward against Houston (2-12) and Oakland, which is 4-10.
"Of course it feels better to control your own destiny," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "But you don't want any (more) scares like that. We want teams to come through Denver. The good thing is we're in control of that again and we've got to handle our business."
The Broncos' top priority will be improving a defense that ranks 23rd with 371.5 yards allowed per contest. Denver yielded its first 100-yard rusher of the season when Ryan Mathews gained 127 last week.
The Chargers earned 103 of their 177 rushing yards on first down, went 6 of 12 on third and kept the ball for 38:49 - the longest by a Denver opponent this season.
"If you don't get off on third down, teams can run the ball on you," linebacker Wesley Woodyard told the Broncos' official website. "That's something that we have to continue to get better at. We can't let a team control the clock on us like that."
In an attempt to solidify a defensive front that's lost tackles Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson to health issues, Denver signed end Jeremy Mincey after he was released by Jacksonville.
The Broncos were held to a season-low 18 rushing yards last week after averaging 188.7 in the previous three games. Without Wes Welker (concussion) and his team-high 18 third-down receptions, the Broncos converted two of nine third downs. Eric Decker had two catches for 42 yards after he totaled 16 for 291 and five TDs in the previous two.
Denver, though, appears to have a good shot to bounce back in a big way this week. Three shy of Tom Brady's single-season NFL record of 50 TD passes, Manning is 16-3 against the Texans. He threw for 330 yards and two touchdowns versus Houston last Sept. 23, though the Broncos lost 31-25 at home.
"He's having a tremendous year, one of the greatest years ever," interim coach Wade Phillips said. 'It's going to be a big challenge for us. We're going to have to step up our defensive play, especially our pass defense."
Mired in a 12-game skid that is the league's longest single-season slide since the Colts started 0-13 in 2011, Houston ranks fourth in the NFL with 304.2 yards allowed per game but 25th with 26.8 points given up. The Texans allowed 20 first-half points last Sunday in a 25-3 road loss to Indianapolis, a team that scored 24 combined in the first two quarters of its previous six contests.
Quarterback Case Keenum won't play due to a sprained right thumb, with Matt Schaub getting the nod for an offense that's been held without TD four times this season. The last time the beleaguered veteran played, taking over late in a game against Oakland on Nov. 17 when Keenum was struggling, the home crowd booed Schaub so loudly when he entered the game that the offense was forced to use a silent count.
'I'm not worried about that because I know a majority of our fans are with us no matter what and they've stuck through no matter what,' Phillips said. 'We appreciate them. This is our last home game, so we need a lot of support and I think we'll get it.'
Running back Ben Tate was placed on injured reserve after re-injuring one of the four broken ribs he sustained in Week 8. Dennis Johnson will start in his place.
Houston star receiver Andre Johnson needs one catch for a second straight 100-reception season and fifth in his stellar 11-year career. He had two catches for 72 yards - 60 coming on a TD catch - against the Broncos in 2012.
The Associated Press News Service
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