Here are five things to watch for when the Texans (5-9) take on the Denver Broncos (3-11) at INVESCO Field at Mile High on Sunday. Kickoff is at 3:05 p.m. CT.
1. Running game rebound?: The Texans were dominated up front last week against the Tennessee Titans, but they'll look to get back on track against the league's 31st-ranked rushing defense.
The Broncos have allowed 158.4 rushing yards per game and 4.64 yards per carry. They've allowed a 100-yard rusher in seven of their last 10 games. That's music to the ears of the Texans, who were limited to 30 yards on 17 carries in Nashville.
Texans running back Arian Foster, who leads the league with 1,345 rushing yards, had a season-low 15 rushing yards last Sunday. He sat out much of the fourth quarter because of a sore ankle, but his health is not a concern after he practiced fully all week.
Foster has a league-best 13 rushing touchdowns this season, but only one in his last four games. The Broncos have allowed a league-worst 22 rushing touchdowns, five more than anybody else in the league.
2. Superstar or spectator:Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson will be a game-time decision because of his high-right ankle sprain, which he revealed on Friday has gotten worse in the last two weeks. Johnson said the pain is now affecting the back part of his ankle, near his Achilles tendon. Whether or not he plays at Denver will be determined by how he feels after receiving a painkilling shot on Sunday morning.
If Johnson plays, he has a chance to go for the NFL record books. He needs 284 yards in the final two games to become the first receiver in NFL history with 1,500 yards in three consecutive seasons. Texans coach Gary Kubiak said it's something that the team has thought about this season and that it would "mean a great deal" for Johnson to accomplish the feat. Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, a nine-time Pro Bowler, would likely cover Johnson man-to-man.
If Johnson sits, wide receiver Jacoby Jones would start opposite Kevin Walter. Rookie Dorin Dickerson would be elevated to the third receiver, and rookie Derrick Townsel would presumably get his first chance to play as well. Townsel was called up from the practice squad last week and, like Dickerson, could help the Texans on special teams with his speed.
3. Tebow Time:Broncos rookie quarterback Tim Tebow will make his second-career start on Sunday.
The 2007 Heisman Trophy winner and first-round draft pick out of Florida made his first start last Sunday at Oakland. Tebow went 8-of-16 for 138 yards in a 29-23 loss, throwing a 33-yard touchdown pass and running for a 40-yard touchdown. He was sacked twice and was not intercepted en route to a passer rating of 100.5.
The last rookie quarterback the Texans faced was Rusty Smith, whom the Texans shut down in his first-career start in Week 12. But Smith, a sixth-round pick from Florida Atlantic, hardly had Tebow's credentials or dual-threat ability. To what extent the Broncos open up the playbook this week for Tebow remains to be seen, but Texans defenders know they'll have a unique challenge on their hands come Sunday.
4. Big-play Lloyd:Tebow's top target is wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, who is having a breakout season at age 29. He'll be priority number one for the Texans' 32nd-ranked secondary.
Lloyd ranks second in the NFL this season with 1,264 yards, 48 more than Johnson and 20 behind league-leader Roddy White. He has 10 touchdowns and is catching the deep ball as well as any receiver in the league, averaging 18.9 yards per catch.
Before this season, Lloyd's career-high was 733 receiving yards, set in 2005 with the San Francisco 49ers. He didn't top 365 yards in any of the next four seasons.
For all his success this season, Lloyd doesn't have a 100-yard game since Week 8. But he appears to have good chemistry with Tebow, as he had four catches for 79 yards and a touchdown last week.
5. Looking Sharp:The emergence of rookie linebacker Darryl Sharpton has been a bright spot in the Texans' disappointing finish t o the season. The fourth-round pick from Miami (Fla.) has started the last five games at weakside linebacker, and Kubiak said he'll get more of an opportunity to lead the defense this week.
"Obviously, he's playing a lot," Kubiak said. "He's playing full-time, so they've got him making some of the calls. It's been impressive what he's done. He got a chance to play and he just keeps getting better every week you turn the film on. The kid's playing as good as anybody we got. It's been impressive, and he's taken a little bit of a role upon himself and we'll ask him to do even more these last two games."
Texans coaches love Sharpton's hard-hitting nature and versatility. He has 11 tackles in the last two games. He recorded his first-career sack two weeks ago against the Ravens and a pressure last Sunday that led to a sack by defensive tackle Earl Mitchell. Sharpton will be an integral part of the Texans' efforts to slow down Tebow and running back Knowshon Moreno (719 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry).