|Matt Schaub comes up big for the Texans Sunday. (US Presswire)|
DENVER -- The hit came fast and impacted so nastily that Matt Schaub's helmet went flying off his head, rolling to a stop almost directly next to his face. It was a strange visual. It was also likely the hardest hit of the day and maybe the season so far.
Schaub was hit high by Denver linebacker Joe Mays, in the chest area. Almost simultaneously, he was hit high by linebacker Von Miller. The collision was so fierce that Schaub's helmet popped off like it had small rocket boosters attached. Schaub's ear became mangled in the process.
Mays was called for roughing the passer and will likely receive a nice fine letter from the commissioner. Meanwhile, the Texans continue to send a notice to the entire league: don't forget about us. The Texans beat Denver -- barely -- holding off a late Peyton Manning run. But they won, 31-25.
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The story entering this game was: Can Manning rebound from a dreadful performance in Atlanta? The answer is both complicated and, for this game, almost totally irrelevant. Manning looked better, but even if he was the Manning of old the Broncos may have still lost this game to Schaub and the hot Texans.
It's difficult to say in this insane, topsy-turvy NFL which team is the best. It could be Atlanta. It could be the Giants. Maybe even the Cardinals. Last week it was San Francisco. Next week it could be some other group. But the team that has to be in the conversation, despite almost blowing a huge lead to Denver, is Houston.
The Houston defense (J.J. Watt is angling for defensive player of the year) and Schaub are why Houston was able to hold on. With a few exceptions, Schaub's passes were crisp and accurate. Schaub had long touchdown bombs of 60 and 52 yards but his intermediate passes were equally impressive. He had four touchdown passes total as Houston went to 3-0 for the first time in its 11-year history, and beat Manning for just the third time in 19 attempts. This was also Houston's first road win against Manning. Of course, this isn't the same Manning but it's still a huge win for a team and franchise still perhaps searching for respect from the rest of the league.
At just under the three-minute mark, as Denver closed a 31-11 gap to just 31-25, Schaub hit Andre Johnson for a 12-yard out on third-and-five. It was typical of Schaub's day. When the Texans needed a big play, Schaub made it.
If he didn't, Watt did. Watt had 2 1/2 sacks and his aggressive rush led to a holding call that eliminated a 36-yard Manning pass. If Watt didn't, Arian Foster did. Or any number of other Texans players. This team is deep, fast and athletic. They attack from the edges, the middle and over the top. They beat the Broncos with big plays and a series of jabs. They can punch to the sternum or choke you out.
The Broncos still made it a game. Houston had a 21-5 second quarter lead and a 31-11 lead in the fourth. The game looked over. Then Manning worked some of his magic to make the game competitive but it was too late.
Evaluating Manning's day is far more difficult than examining Schaub's. At one point, Manning's arm looked markedly weaker, and it appeared something was off. Then that changed as late in the game Manning looked excellent. There were moments of the old Manning. His 330 yards passing against Denver was the 64th time 300-yard game which pushed him past Dan Marino for the most 300 yards games in NFL history.
"Anytime we throw incomplete passes, that's a 'we' thing," said Manning. He used that phrase several times when speaking to reporters.
"[We've] gotta find a way to move the chains, keep our defense off the field, stay on the field and convert for touchdowns."
As the season goes on there's little question Manning will get better and he will begin to click with this offense. It's only a matter of time. In fact, it is the Broncos that by the end of the season or into the next could be the most dangerous team in football.
For the moment, that title may belong to a well-rounded Houston team that can play with anybody, no matter how much Schaub may get punched in the face.
After the game, Schaub had his non-throwing shoulder X-rayed. On the sideline, during the game, team medical personnel kept examining the side of Schaub's head, specifically the left ear. Schaub explained why afterwards.
"I just lost a little piece of my ear," he said. "I was bleeding and my helmet came off so I had to come out for a play but I was fine."
It looked like his ear had been nibbled on by Mike Tyson. It was bruised and there were two large scratches behind the ear as well.
Talented and tough. Not a bad combination.