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What to watch for in 'MNF': Texans-Broncos

A legend retired. A quarterback scorned. A general manager betrayed. Sometimes in football, the drama takes place off the field.

Such is the case ahead of Monday night when Brock Osweiler returns to Denver, where he spent the first four years of his career, now as the leader of the Houston Texans, the team that paid him what he felt he was worth -- $72 million! -- in the offseason.

Osweiler's saga with Broncos GM John Elway was well-documented. After replacing Peyton Manning in Week 10 and starting seven games admirably for the injured sheriff, Osweiler was re-replaced in Week 17 and sat idly on the sidelines while Manning "led" Denver to its first Super Bowl victory since the days of Elway. When Manning retired in the offseason and Brock hit free agency, Elway had to make a decision and set a price to keep his viable backup. During negotiations, Elway came in low, and when the GM stood firm, Brock charged off to Texas where the air and his wallet thickened.

And that leads us to Monday. Osweiler has quarterbacked the Texans to a 4-2 record and a one-game lead in the AFC South, but hasn't looked sharp in the process. Last week's comeback win over the Colts could either be looked at as a sign of things to come for the Houston starter, or as a brief spurt of heroic competence bound to be forgotten.

Meanwhile, the Broncos, having drafted Paxton Lynch and settled on Trevor Siemian, who backed up Osweiler in 2015, are also 4-2 and tied for the lead in the AFC West. Siemian's hot start, highlighted by a four-touchdown showing against Cincinnati, hit a snag when he sprained his left AC joint, an injury that sidelined him one week and limited his ability in Denver's loss to the Chargers in Week 6.

Both teams, both quarterbacks have something to prove on Monday night, but there's more to this contest than the soap opera intrigue. Here's what we're watching for:

  1. Can Brock handle the pressure? No, not the psychological pressure that comes with signing an oversized contract with a franchise famous for fledgling quarterbacks, and then underwhelming through the first six games of the season. No, the other pressure. The heat that Denver's Super Bowl-winning defense has been bringing in 2016 and will dial up to "11" for Brock's homecoming. Osweiler has been an easy target in the pocket this year; he's taken the second-most QB hits in the league (43). Unfortunately for Houston's O-line, hitting the passer is Denver's specialty; the Broncos' vaunted pass rush leads the NFL with 57 QB hits through Week 6, and Derek Wolfe and Von Miller are the only teammate duo in NFL with 10-plus QB hits each. If there was any question that Denver's plan is to hit Brock early and often, heed Brandon Marshall, who has had this game circled since April: "We want to kill him."
  1. Gary Kubiak watched Thursday night's loss to the Chargers from the comforts of his own home, sidelined with a complex migraine condition. The Broncos coach will make his return to the field on Monday night with his former team in town. Kubiak is the Texans' longest tenured skipper, making the playoffs twice and coaching just under .500 ball in eight seasons at the helm before his exit in 2013; he drafted many of the defensive stars on Houston's roster, from Brian Cushing to J.J. Watt to Whitney Mercilus. On Monday, he'll be tasked with exploiting their weaknesses. Denver's offense lagged in San Diego without Kubiak calling the shots and scored fewer than 20 points in the last two weeks after averaging 27.8 points through the first four. With Siemian healthy and Kubiak back in the saddle, can the coach lead an offensive resurgence against the league's second-best pass defense?
  1. In last week's comeback win over the Colts, Texans running back Lamar Miller had his best showing since joining Houston from Miami in the offseason. Miller toted the rock for 149 rushing yards at 6.2 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns, including a fourth-quarter catch-and-run on which he juked five Colts out of their horseshoes. While he's only had consecutive 100-yard rushing games once in his career, Miller is set for another bona fide performance in Week 7. With Brock getting all he can handle from Denver's pass rush, look for Miller to be used as a short-yardage tool out of the backfield. The dual-threat back can take advantage of a Broncos defense that allows more production to backs and tight ends than it does to wide receivers (51 for 571 vs. 59 for 650).
  1. Since Week 8 of 2015, Houston's defense is tops in the league in yards allowed per game, passing yards allowed per game and sacks. But as of late, the Texans have taken a step back without J.J. Watt., their fiercest producer and spirit animal. Houston has given up seven more PPG and nearly 70 more YPG in the three games without Watt on the defensive line. While their pass defense remains stiff (189.3 YPG; 2nd in NFL), Houston's run-stopping stats remain at the bottom of the league (126.3 YPG; 29th); even the Colts, whose last 100-yard rusher was someone named Vick Ballard, went for 100-plus on them. Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus are putting up monstrous numbers in Watt's absence, but their colleagues on the defensive line need to join them and force Denver into long third-down situations, proving that Houston's defense can play playoff defense with or without Watt.
  1. Look out for Broncos rookie running back Devontae Booker. With C.J. Anderson struggling to move the chains -- he's failed to reach more than 50 rushing yards in four games -- Kubiak said this week that Booker "deserves more opportunities to touch the football" and implied he will see more action against Houston. In his first season out of Utah, Booker has been given limited time to shine, compiling just 161 yards on 34 carries. But against the struggling Texans' rush defense, Kubiak sees an opportunity for the young man to break out. If Siemian and the Broncos can't get over the top against Houston's secondary, then he'll have to resort to quick passes to Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders and lots and lots of handoffs. As Kubiak indicted, Booker looks to be the beneficiary of those calls.
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