DENVER — He stood on the east sideline of Broncos Stadium, staring out at the field from an unfamiliar vantage point while scoping a scene he regarded as hauntingly familiar. Five days after having been traded to the Houston Texans, veteran wide receiver Demaryius Thomas — who’d spent all 8 1/2 seasons of his highly productive career with the Denver Broncos — had been thrust into the surreal position of playing his first game with his new team in the home stadium of his former one.
As the Broncos, who trailed 19-17 in the waning moments of Sunday’s tense midseason clash, worked their way upfield for a potential game-winning field goal, Thomas almost felt like he was having an out-of-body experience. And when Denver quarterback Case Keenum, on fourth-and-8 from his own 45, connected on an 18-yard completion to Emmanuel Sanders, Thomas’ stress level was Mile High.
And then, with the Broncos poised to pull out an uplifting victory as they head into their bye week, their approach got strikingly passive. After Keenum connected with tight end Jeff Heuerman on a 5-yard pass to the Houston 32, setting up a second-and-5 with about 30 seconds remaining, Denver huddled up and slowly approached the line, content to hand the ball to rookie running back Phillip Lindsay (who lost a yard) and call its final timeout with three seconds to go.
Kicker Brandon McManus proceeded to push a 51-yard field-goal attempt wide right, sending the Texans (6-3) onto the field to celebrate their sixth consecutive victory, and creating another headache for embattled second-year coach Vance Joseph, whose team fell to 3-6 following a 2-0 start.
An hour later, as he prepared to leave the visitors’ locker room, Thomas gave a very blunt assessment of his former team’s approach to the final stages of Sunday’s game.
"That’s what they do over there," Thomas told NFL.com. "I ain’t a part of that no more. We like to win over here."
It was a victory that continued a remarkable renaissance for the Texans, whose 0-3 start set off sensors around the league and provoked whispers about the job security of fifth-year coach Bill O’Brien. Now, as he heads into a bye week, O’Brien is riding high, and Houston holds a sizable lead in the AFC South (over the 3-4 Tennessee Titans, with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts each at 3-5) and is in the thick of the race for a first-round bye.
While Thomas may have harbored some emotional baggage in taking a dig at his former team, he certainly wasn’t the only Texans player who questioned — and applauded — the Broncos’ end-of-game strategy.
"Yeah, I was surprised, absolutely," Houston safety Tyrann Mathieu said. "Because I remember the game we played against Tom Brady (a 27-20 Texans road defeat to the New England Patriots in the season opener), there was sort of a similar situation where he was playing for the field goal, and he threw the deep out (to get them closer).
"We were hoping that Keenum didn’t start thinking like Tom Brady."
Said outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney: "They had (at least) 25 seconds on the clock, and they thought, We’ve got it, and let the clock run down. I was like, ‘Let it run!’ They thought he was gonna make it for sure."
In retrospect, the Broncos could have spiked the ball after Heuerman’s catch, setting up a third-and-5 and retaining their timeout with an opportunity to reduce the length of McManus’ kick. After all, even with the Mile High altitude, a 51-yard field goal is no gimme.
"We were in range there and the time was ticking down," Joseph said at his postgame press conference, "so we want to kick it in the middle for B-Mac. Our line was the 35; we were there, so it was time to kick the ball."
In fairness to Joseph, with game-wreckers like Clowney and J.J. Watt on the field for the Texans, attempting to get more yards could have backfired, either via a sack or holding penalty. Yet critics of the second-year coach, who remains popular in the locker room despite an 8-17 record, will undoubtedly seize upon Sunday’s climax as yet another source of frustration.
This is especially true because of the way the first half ended: The Broncos, trailing 13-10, faced a fourth-and-9 at the Houston 44-yard-line with 22 seconds remaining. Joseph sent McManus on to attempt a 62-yard field goal, which had the distance but sailed wide right. That gave the Texans the ball at the Denver 48 with 18 seconds remaining, and Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson took advantage of soft coverage to complete a pair of passes, setting up Ka’imi Fairbairn’s half-ending 46-yard field goal for a 16-10 lead.
"At half, that’s totally on me," Joseph told reporters. "I’m trying to be greedy and get three more points there, and it cost us three. I get that."
The Texans, meanwhile, got out of Denver with a record that few outsiders could have envisioned on Sept. 23, when Houston fell to 0-3 with a 27-22 defeat to the New York Giants. At that point, O’Brien felt bewildered and wondered if a turnaround was forthcoming. His players, however, kept fighting and cut down on their mental and physical errors, and Watson, a rookie sensation in 2017 before suffering a season-ending knee injury in early November, began to regain his rhythm.
"Man, we believed in each other," said star wideout DeAndre Hopkins, who continued his stellar season Sunday with 10 receptions for 105 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown early in the second quarter. "Nobody pointed fingers in this locker room, at all. We weren’t playing that bad — it was a little mistake here and there. And we cleaned it up."
Said backup quarterback Brandon Weeden: "No one batted an eye, which is crazy. It’s easy to shut it down. But we kept fighting and worked through it."
The Texans also got some good fortune, in the form of controversial coaching decisions by opponents that led to overtime victories over the Colts and Cowboys, Houston’s first two triumphs of the season. First, facing a fourth-and-4 from his own 43-yard-line with 27 seconds left in overtime, Indy’s rookie coach, Frank Reich, decided not to play for the tie and kept his offense on the field. The Texans forced an Andrew Luck incompletion and took over, and Watson’s 24-yard pass to Hopkins put Houston in range for Fairbairn’s 37-yard game-winner as time expired. The following week, essentially the opposite happened: Dallas coach Jason Garrett, needing half a yard to extend the Cowboys’ opening overtime possession, instead punted from the Houston 42, and the Texans won the game after Watson and Hopkins hooked up for a 49-yard completion, setting up a Fairbairn field goal.
On Sunday, the Texans came out hot — and they wasted little time integrating Thomas into the offense. Welcomed home by a large display banner outside the stadium honoring his accomplishments, Thomas (three catches, 61 yards) made his presence felt early, catching a short pass from Watson for a 31-yard gain on the game’s fourth play from scrimmage. He kept it up on the next snap, snatching an 18-yard dart out of the air to give Houston a first down at the Denver 15. Three plays later, Watson found rookie tight end Jordan Thomas in the left corner of the end zone for the game’s first points.
The Broncos, however, hung tough and hung around, eventually taking the lead, 17-16, on Keenum’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Heuerman between two defenders with 5:57 left in the third quarter. Houston countered with a long drive that ended in Fairbairn’s 37-yard field goal with 14:11 remaining, then survived three Broncos possessions without surrendering the lead.
The final drive, which began at the Denver 14 with 3:29 remaining, featured a pair of fourth-down conversions. As the Broncos closed in on their fateful field goal attempt, Hopkins approached Thomas on the sideline with a pointed question.
"I asked Demaryius, ‘S—, how good is this kicker?’ " Hopkins recalled after the game. "He said, ‘He’s pretty good.’ At that point, I got a little nervous."
And Joseph, at that point, got conservative. Sure, hindsight is 20-20, but in this case, it’s also 3-6 — something that Joseph’s exacting boss, Broncos general manager John Elway, will ponder as the team heads into its bye week. (Elway declined to comment after Sunday’s game.)
The Texans, meanwhile, are far from great — they still have issues on the offensive line and at cornerback, which are pretty significant areas of concern — but they’re certainly grateful for their place in the standings. And on Sunday evening, their newly acquired wide receiver might have been the most appreciative Houston player of all.
Shortly before leaving the Texans’ locker room, Thomas received a visit from the Broncos’ best player, star linebacker Von Miller, who grinned as he entered enemy territory to pay his respects to a former teammate. Upon heading up the tunnel that led to the Houston buses, Thomas was greeted by a large contingent that included an even more exalted ex-teammate: Peyton Manning, who gave his former target a heartfelt hug before walking off into the Denver night with his children, Marshall and Mosley.
Thomas ended the embrace and flashed a satisfied smile. Then he headed off into what he believes is a bright future with his new team, leaving his ex-coach and former teammates to cope with a far murkier present.
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.
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