Family ties make Broncos-Texans compelling

Thursday night's game between the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans is truly a family affair.

Denver's Mike Shanahan developed current Texans head coach Gary Kubiak as he would his own son. Shanahan taught him the tricks of the coaching trade. He taught him his version of the West Coast offense. He taught Kubiak his creative, successful running game schemes. He took him from quarterback to quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. When Shanahan thought he was ready, he recommended Kubiak for head coaching jobs.

Though both teams stand on the verge of playoff elimination, this game is compelling because of what's happening along the Texans' sidelines. Kyle Shanahan, Mike's son, is Kubiak's quarterbacks coach. Mike Sherman, the Texans' offensive coordinator, is heading to Texas A&M after the season. Kyle, who many believe is a future head coaching candidate, could end up being Kubiak's offensive coordinator.

It's all in the family.

Kubiak, who left the Broncos after the 2005 season, might have trouble recognizing the offense he used to coach. Only tackle Matt Lepsis is left on the offensive line Kubiak knew. Tom Nalen and Ben Hamilton are on injured reserve. Wide receiver Rod Smith is out for the season. The backfield changes week to week. Jay Cutler is at quarterback.

The Broncos may be family to Kubiak, but he needs an introduction to the Broncos' new offensive family. Overall, the Broncos are in transition. After missing the playoffs last season, Mike Shanahan fired his defensive coordinator, shook up the defensive line, cut the middle linebacker and traded for cornerback Dre' Bly.

But things haven't worked out. Though Shanahan's game plans and Cutler's development at quarterback remain intriguing, the Broncos took major steps backward this season. The offense is averaging 21.6 points per game, but the defense is giving up 25.8 points per game. Those aren't playoff or Super Bowl numbers, and Shanahan thinks only in terms of Super Bowls.

What's interesting about this game is whether the Texans are ready to pass the Broncos in the AFC pecking order. Kubiak seems to have found the right quarterback in Matt Schaub, but the poor offensive line play that doomed David Carr has finally caught up to Schaub. He's been hit and beaten down all season. With Schaub out with a dislocated left shoulder, Sage Rosenfels is trying to get the team to .500 Thursday night.

Both teams enter the game with 6-7 records. Shanahan is hoping to keep Denver's fading playoff hopes alive. Getting to .500 doesn't mean a lot to him if a trip to the playoffs isn't attached. For Kubiak, though, getting to .500 means progress for a former expansion team that is moving in the right direction.

1. Jacksonville at Pittsburgh: At least this week there are no guarantees coming from the mouth of Steelers safety Anthony Smith. Smith guaranteed a victory over the undefeated Patriots. Instead of forecasting outcomes, Smith and the Steelers have to get back to business to clinch the AFC North. Sunday's game against the Jaguars is dangerous and critical. The Steelers have to be fearful of falling back into a tie with the Browns and affecting their margin for error in the final two games of the season.

The Jaguars figure to be the AFC's top wild-card team, and they will probably face the Chargers in the first round of the playoffs in San Diego. If the Jags beat the Steelers and give the Chargers an opening for the No. 3 seed, the Jaguars might be setting up a second visit to Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs.

2. Buffalo at Cleveland: With the Bills at 7-6 and the Browns at 8-5, this has the feel of the NCAA basketball play-in game, but the stakes are much higher. Both teams are competing for the AFC's final wild-card spot, although the Browns have an outside chance of getting back into the AFC North race. For the Browns, this could be a celebration. Coach Romeo Crennel might have been fired if the Browns had faltered in their three AFC North home games in September. Instead, they won two of three and are on the brink of making the playoffs as the league's surprise team.

Bills coach Dick Jauron has done an equally amazing job. Despite being among the league leaders for missed games because of injuries, the Bills are in the hunt. Trent Edwards has solidified the quarterback position despite being a rookie. Marshawn Lynch is among the league's top rookies. But Jauron continues to fight obstacles. His offensive coordinator, Steve Fairchild, is set to leave at the end of the season to become Colorado State's head coach. Jauron has to keep his team focused on its most important game of the season.

Tarvaris Jackson


Minnesota Vikings


3. Chicago at Minnesota Six weeks ago, there was a chilly reception around Vikings coach Brad Childress. Except for the running of Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, the offense was stuck in neutral. Tarvaris Jackson appeared to be over his head as a starting quarterback. A hard-hitting defense seemed to be playing for naught. Now, the Vikings have a great chance to make the playoffs, and a victory over the Bears Monday night can put them in the driver's seat. Though he isn't asked to throw much, Jackson is developing into an efficient quarterback. Opponents can't stop the Vikings' running attack, and Minnesota's defense is becoming one of the most feared in football.

At 5-8, the Bears are thinking toward next year. They are giving Kyle Orton a chance at quarterback.

4. N.Y. Jets at New England: This might be the most anticipated blowout of the season. In their first meeting, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was caught spying and lost a first-round pick and a big chuck of money. Since then, Belichick has gone unbeaten and is willing to run up the score whenever possible. It's not a matter of the Patriots winning this game. The question is how badly the Patriots will beat the Jets and how much they will be willing to run up the score. This is a payback game.

5. Detroit at San Diego: After a 6-2 start, the Lions are falling apart. They have lost five in a row. Hopes of a 10-win season ended in Week 14, and now the Lions face the possibility of a 10-loss season if they don't turn things around quickly. Players are frustrated. Quarterback Jon Kitna is beaten up. The offensive line continues to struggle. The defense can't stop anyone. And now they face a Chargers team coming off a great come-from-behind victory over the Titans on the road.

Chargers QB Philip Rivers is usually pretty sharp at home. The Chargers are gaining momentum and it's unlikely they will suffer a letdown at home. Though two of their best defensive players -- Shawne Merriman and Luis Castillo -- are injured, the Chargers expect to win, clinch the AFC West title and then begin getting ready for the playoffs.

6. Washington at N.Y. Giants: -- The Giants are one win away from locking up a wild-card berth and certainly would love to share the moment with their fans. Give coach Tom Coughlin credit. If he gets the victory, it will mark the third straight year he's led the Giants to the playoffs.

The Redskins come to town refreshed after a tough two-week stretch in which they've dealt with the tragic death of safety Sean Taylor and the loss of quarterback Jason Campbell to a knee injury. Backup QB Todd Collins knows the offense, but he will be facing an aggressive defense that loves to blitz and bring pressure. Collins isn't as fleet of foot as Campbell and could have trouble against the rush.

7. Arizona at New Orleans: The loser of this game can probably forget about the playoffs even though the winner probably doesn't have much of a chance, either. The Cardinals are coming off a 21-point loss in Seattle that frustrated them. Quarterback Kurt Warner struggled with five interceptions and the running game never got going.

The Saints weren't challenged on Monday night by the Falcons and simply want to finish the season strong. Aaron Stecker did a nice job running the ball even though he doesn't have the skills of Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister. He's a no-nonsense, workhorse-type of back, but the offense is geared around Drew Brees' arm.

Shaun Alexander


Running Back
Seattle Seahawks


8. Seattle at Carolina: Now that Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren accomplished his main goal of winning the NFC West, he can concentrate on the little things as he gets ready for the playoffs. He changed deep snappers because the timing of his kicking game is off due to bad snaps. He's trying to get better production out of his running offense, particularly struggling Shaun Alexander. Holmgren would like to finish the season with three more wins and has a chance to do that; Seattle is playing the Panthers, Ravens and Falcons in the final three weeks.

The Panthers are playing for pride -- and to save coach John Fox's job. If the Panthers lose, they will have a 1-6 record at home, which doesn't sit well with the fans.

9. Atlanta at Tampa Bay: The Falcons are trying to move forward after first-year coach Bobby Petrino left on Tuesday to take the Arkansas head coaching job and Michael Vick received a 23-month jail sentence on Monday. Although players may have welcomed Petrino's departure, it's going to be hard to give their best effort at the end of the season, although everyone's performance is being reviewed.

The Bucs must feel lucky. They have QB Jeff Garcia back after missing two games with a sore back. A victory gives them the NFC South title, and coach Jon Gruden doesn't want that to slip away. They get the Falcons at the right time.

10. Tennessee at Kansas City: For weeks, the Titans had the edge in the race for the AFC's final wild-card spot, but now they are in trouble with a 7-6 record. They have fallen behind the Browns and need a break to stay in contention. They should be able defeat the Chiefs (4-9), even though Kansas City is a tough place to play.

Thanks to Albert Haynesworth, Kyle Vanden Bosch and others, along with a great scheme, the Titans have a fierce defensive line that will give trouble to a banged-up, struggling Chiefs offensive line. This could be a tough day for Chiefs quarterback Brodie Croyle.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.