DENVER (AP) — For Peyton Manning's detractors, there are no interceptions to analyze this time, no one or two ill-conceived throws to pick apart.
There is, however, another loss to dissect, along with the makings of a pattern the Broncos certainly don't want to prolong: Start slow, finish fast, talk about what might have been.
The latest defeat came Sunday at the hands of Houston quarterback Matt Schaub, who lost a small chunk of his ear after a brutal hit, but still outplayed Manning, throwing for four touchdowns against a confused Broncos defense to stake the Texans to a big lead en route to a 31-25 victory.
"I think you try to learn something from each game," Manning said. "It's hard to look past a loss, but you certainly study yourself during the week."
If he only looks at the final stat sheet — 26 for 52 for 330 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions — it might not feel so bad. But 120 of those yards and both scores came after the Broncos had fallen behind by 20.
It took a furious rally to bring them within six.
If that sounds familiar, it is — the exact same deficit the Broncos (1-2) faced last week against Atlanta and the same margin they lost by to the Falcons. Manning had three interceptions in the first quarter of that one. This time, it was the defense that put him in a hole.
"At the end, we still lose," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. "One thing you don't want to see is guys fold and not finish to the end. We had a lot of guys who kept fighting. We just need to find a way not to get ourselves in that hole."
Schaub put them there with a 290-yard day. He took advantage of blown coverages to connect with Andre Johnson for a 60-yard score and Kevin Walter for a 52-yard touchdown on the way to a 21-5 lead in the second quarter.
"We knew that we had to try to get the ball downfield because they had a lot of people committed to the run," said Texans coach Gary Kubiak, the longtime Denver quarterback and assistant coach, who got his 50th career win. "We did what we had to do to win, convinced them that we had to make some big plays and they did."
After the second long touchdown, starting cornerback Tracy Porter stayed on the sideline but never returned to the field. Broncos coach John Fox said Porter had a knee injury.
Schaub's final touchdown was a 14-yard pass to tight end Owen Daniels, who was locked in one-on-one coverage against linebacker Von Miller. It gave the Texans a 31-11 lead with 1:33 left in the third quarter — placing the Houston defense in the prevent and Manning into desperation mode.
That touchdown pass came about 10 minutes after Schaub was leveled by Joe Mays, which resulted in Denver's second consecutive roughing-the-passer penalty and, eventually, a Texans field goal for a 24-11 lead. Schaub came out for a play and had a big, bloody mark on his left ear.
"I felt fine," Schaub said. "I just lost a piece of my ear. I was bleeding and my helmet came off. So, I had to come out for a play, but I was fine."
Houston improved to 3-0 for the first time in the franchise's 11 seasons. The Texans won for only the third time in 19 tries against Manning — and the first time ever in a road game.
Manning had his ups and downs — making some throws to prove the arm strength is certainly there, but also coming up short on a couple of those 18-yard out patterns that are as routine for NFL quarterbacks as making the bed.
He never found much of a groove in the first three quarters and the Broncos were held to three field goals and a safety in falling behind by 20. There were no interceptions, but that's not to say Houston didn't have its way with the 36-year-old quarterback, who came into the game with 42 career touchdowns against the team he started beating when it was in its expansion season, back in 2002.
Manning's biggest headache in this one was second-year defensive end J.J. Watt, who finished with 2 1/2 sacks and forced a holding call in the third quarter that nullified a 36-yard gain.
"He's a great quarterback and you want to put as much pressure on him as you can," Watt said. "You want to put as many guys in his face as you can. He still made a lot of great throws. They're going to have a heck of a year. He's a great quarterback but we had a good day defensively."
Arian Foster finished with 105 yards on 25 carries for Houston. The Texans converted on four third downs and went 97 yards to take a 14-5 lead when Schaub hit Foster, being covered by defensive lineman Kevin Vickerson, for a 3-yard score that Foster celebrated by blowing kisses to the crowd.
NOTES: Johnson had two receptions, the long touchdown and a 12-yard gain while being covered by Bailey on third-and-5 with 2:43 left to help the Texans run off extra clock. ... Manning recorded his 64th 300-yard game, breaking a tie with Dan Marino for most in NFL history.
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