DENVER -- With their first-ever road victory over longtime nemesis Peyton Manning, the Texans are now 3-0 for the first time in team history.
Quarterback Matt Schaub threw four touchdown passes in a gritty performance, and the Texans avoided a late collapse to escape Sports Authority Field at Mile High with a 31-25 victory over Manning and the Denver Broncos.
"It's a big win," said Texans coach Gary Kubiak, who earned his 50th career victory. "It's a tough place to play, a big road game early in the season… We had the character to still find the way to get out of here and finish with a win. Got a lot of respect for that organization, that team, but really proud of our guys today. They hung in there and found a way to get it done."
The Texans are the only undefeated team in the AFC. They are one of three 3-0 teams in the NFL along with the Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals.
"It feels good," said wide receiver Andre Johnson, who has been with the Texans since 2003. "I've been through the worst of the worst with the organization, and now we've climbed that mountain and we're still climbing, trying to get over that hump. We have a great team. The thing is just being consistent every week and going out and trying to get wins."
Schaub got the game ball from Kubiak after completing 17-of-30 passes for 290 yards. Johnson, wide receiver Kevin Walter, running back Arian Foster and tight end Owen Daniels all caught touchdown passes. Defensive end J.J. Watt continued his red-hot start to the season with 2.5 sacks, seven tackles and four tackles for loss.
Schaub brushed off two consecutive illegal hits in the third quarter, including one that left him missing a small part of his left ear, and sat out for only one play before returning to the game.
"He was a warrior out there," Daniels said. "He's one of the toughest guys I know."
The Texans led 31-11 early in the fourth quarter. They were seemingly cruising to an easy victory until a fumble by Ben Tate gave the Broncos the ball at midfield. Right tackle Derek Newton missed a block on the play, and defensive end Kevin Vickerson came in untouched to hit Tate in the backfield and jar the ball loose.
The fumble sparked a late rally by Manning, who was 16-2 against the Texans with the Indianapolis Colts from 2002-10. The four-time NFL MVP threw two touchdown passes in the next seven minutes to make it a one-score game with three minutes remaining.
"It's the NFL," Texans safety Glover Quin said. "You never count a team out. They make some plays to get back in it and then hey, it came down to the end."
The Texans ran out all but the final 20 seconds of the remaining game clock thanks to a crucial catch by Johnson on third-and-five with 2:49 remaining. Johnson beat Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey with an out route for a 12-yard catch near the left sideline, which all but wrapped up the victory.
"It was huge," Kubiak said of Johnson's catch. "We needed to throw the ball. We had to force the issue… It doesn't surprise you when it's (Johnson) when the money's on the line."
The Broncos took a 2-0 lead two minutes into the game when defensive end Elvis Dumervil sacked Schaub for a safety on the Texans' first play. The Texans found themselves in a 5-0 hole with 8:41 left in the first quarter after a 32-yard field goal by Broncos kicker Matt Prater.
The Texans took the lead on their next possession with a 60-yard touchdown bomb from Schaub to Johnson. On a play-action fake, Johnson beat cornerback Tracy Porter with a double move and got behind the defense for the score.
"We had the perfect coverage, and wasn't nobody on the other side of the field," Johnson said. "It was a play we put in earlier this week, and it worked out for us."
Watt and linebacker Brooks Reed sacked Manning to end the next drive. The Texans then drove 97 yards in 14 plays to take a 14-5 lead. Rookie wide receiver Keshawn Martin had an 18-yard catch on the drive, and tight end Garrett Graham had a 27-yarder to set up a three-yard touchdown catch by Foster on third-and-goal.
Less than two minutes later, Schaub hit Walter over the middle for a 52-yard touchdown pass. It was another play-action fake and another double move, with Porter once again in coverage.
"We practiced that many, many times," Walter said. "It's just a matter of going out there and executing, a matter of getting the right coverage, and we did. I tell you what, that throw that Matt made was unbelievable. That ball was perfect."
The Broncos put two more field goals on the board before halftime to make the score 21-11. Schaub was picked off in Broncos territory by linebacker Wesley Woodyard in the final minute of the half to set up the second field goal, a 53-yarder by Prater.
Texans kicker Shayne Graham made a 41-yard field goal early in the third quarter. It was set up in part by roughing-the-passer penalties on Broncos linebackers Von Miller and Joe Mays on back-to-back plays.
Later in the quarter, wide receiver Lestar Jean had a career-long 46-yard catch down the left sideline. Daniels caught a 14-yard touchdown pass two plays later, trucking over Broncos cornerback Chris Harris defender on his way into the end zone and a 31-11 lead.
The Texans appeared to have the game well in hand until Tate's fumble with 10:28 remaining. Two plays after the turnover, Manning hit wide receiver Brandon Stokley for a 38-yard touchdown pass. The Texans went three-and-out, and the Broncos drove for another touchdown – a six-yard catch by former Texans tight end Joel Dreessen off a richochet – to make the score 31-25.
It was all for naught as the Texans held on for the victory.
"Man – finally," Texans defensive end Antonio Smith said of his reaction at the final whistle. "I knew we was gonna win, I was just waiting on when it was gonna be over, man. They started making the game too long."
Up next for the Texans is a home game against the Tennessee Titans (1-2) at Reliant Stadium next Sunday at noon CT.