Denver DENVER (AP) — The Houston Texans finally broke through last year, winning their first division title and earning their first playoff spot in the 10-year history of the franchise.
Not too big a surprise was the breakthrough came once a certain quarterback had moved out of the way in the AFC South.
But Peyton Manning is neither gone nor forgotten — at least not this week for the Texans.
On Sunday, they face their biggest nemesis, though he's wearing a different uniform and playing in a different division. Manning and the Denver Broncos host the Texans in a matchup that has always placed the 36-year-old quarterback squarely in his comfort zone.
Glad he's out of the division?
"I might not be the only one who would say that," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said.
Manning is 16-2 lifetime against Houston, his most wins against any opponent. His 42 touchdown passes are the highest total against any team, and his 110.6 passer rating is the best against any franchise in the AFC. During the nine years Manning and the Texans faced each other in the AFC South, Indianapolis made nine playoff appearances, won seven divisions, went to two Super Bowls and won one. Houston during that era: all zeroes. Houston finally got on the board when Manning missed 2011 with his neck injury.
"It's always a mental game with Peyton, because he studies the game so much," said Texans defensive end Antonio Smith, who had half a sack of Manning when the Texans earned only their second victory against him in the 2010 season opener. "With a quarterback like that, once he gets in his groove and he knows exactly what it is you're doing, it can be hard to beat him."
Of course, now appearing with Denver, it's the new Manning — the one returning after a year off and multiple neck operations. The one the Colts decided to move on without and the one who, admittedly, needs some time to get back into playing mode.
It showed in the first quarter of last Monday's game against Atlanta, when Manning threw three interceptions, all the result of bad reads, bad throws or some combination of both. It matched the worst quarter of football he's played in 15 seasons in the NFL. The Broncos (1-1) lost 27-21.
Manning has moved on. He'll face the Texans (2-0), who have allowed the fewest points (17), yards passing (248) and total yards (392) over the first two weeks.
"Against a team like Houston, you've got to get off to a better start on both sides of the ball and kind of feed off one another," he said. "I think they're easy to grab your attention because of the way they play on both sides of the ball."
Manning's won't be the only familiar face the Texans see when they come to Denver for only the fourth meeting between the clubs.
Kubiak spent nine years backing up John Elway at quarterback, then another 11 as an assistant coach for Mike Shanahan when he led the Broncos to two Super Bowl wins. Nine members of Houston's staff have history in Denver, including defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who served in the same role with the Broncos before being elevated to head coach in 1993.
After Denver won its first Super Bowl in 1998, Kubiak was the man Shanahan tasked with taking Elway to lunch to persuade him to stick around one more year. That sales job worked and the Broncos repeated as champions.
"After that second Super Bowl, I called him for the next meeting and he said, 'I'll go have a beer with you but you can forget it. I'm not playing anymore,'" Kubiak said. "I had a chance the first time. I had no chance the second time."
After the firing of Shanahan following the 2008 season, Kubiak was considered, by many, the best fit for the Broncos. But he was only three years into his job with the Texans and in no position to leave.
Another three years later, he comes in with a division title, and goes against Elway, who is now the Broncos executive vice president of football operations.
"John's just so competitive as a person, regardless of what he's doing," Kubiak said. "I could tell when we talked a few times that the fire was there to get back in it and be part of it. And you know John — if he's going to do something, it's going to be full-bored toward winning a championship."
Which helps explain why Manning is playing quarterback for the Broncos.
It was Elway's ability to speak Manning's language and Manning's comfort level with the Hall of Famer that played a big role in his decision to come to Denver.
Denver's gain turned out to be the AFC South's gain, as well, and nobody benefited more from getting Manning out of the division than Houston.
Texans cornerback Glover Quin remembers the problems Manning caused, to say nothing of the mystique he brought to the field every time the Texans played the Colts. Before the 2010 season opener, Quin, then a second-year player, told his wife he'd ask Manning to autograph the ball if he was fortunate enough to get an interception.
It didn't happen that day, but the Texans won. A year later, they won the division. Manning, meanwhile, comes into Sunday's game looking as vulnerable as he's ever been.
None of that, of course, means much to anyone with a history in Houston.
"They have to get on the same page and be more consistent with their calls," Quin said. "They're getting there. Obviously, he said he's not 100 percent, but he still looks pretty good to me, so we're not falling for that one."
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