Broncos QB Peyton Manning nearly led the Broncos back on Sunday, but counterpart Matt Schaub of the Texans was one better. (AP)

If the Broncos can ever figure out how to play the first three quarters like the fourth, John Fox might have a juggernaut under his command.

But in a pattern that is starting to evoke memories of the Tim Tebow era, the Broncos stumbled and tumbled their way through the first three quarters, falling behind 31-11 before driving to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns while forcing a Houston fumble and a three-and-out on successive possessions. Only a failure to stop the Texans on third-and-5 from the Houston 25 inside of the 3:00 mark -- the exact scenario that the Falcons faced, and converted, against the Broncos last Monday -- kept the Broncos from a chance to complete what would have been their biggest comeback in 30 years and doomed them to a 31-25 defeat Sunday.

As it was, the Broncos were left with the same questions they had going into Sunday's game. Is Peyton Manning's arm strong enough to hold up? Can the defense get off the field on third down? The fourth quarter offered an indication that the first answer could end up being, "Yes," as he flung a pair of touchdown passes, including a 38-yarder, and had a 31-yard score to Demaryius Thomas wiped out because the third-year wide receiver failed to drag his back foot, causing instant replay to overturn the catch. But the reply was a stark negative to the second answer, after the defense allowed conversions on seven of 14 third downs, including a 12-yard Matt Schaub-to-Andre Johnson pass with 2:45 left and the Broncos out of timeouts that ensured the Broncos wouldn't get the ball back for a final comeback attempt until just 20 seconds remained.

Highlight moments: After spotting the Broncos a 5-0 lead, Houston took the lead for good when the Broncos bit on a play-action fake, allowing wide receiver Andre Johnson to break three steps beyond Denver cornerback Tracy Porter. With one safety (Rahim Moore) biting on the fake and another (Mike Adams) slow to rotate over, Johnson easily grabbed the 60-yard pass and cruised home for the score. "That was just a double move and we got the perfect coverage," Johnson said. "There wasn't anybody on the other side of the field. That was a play we put in earlier this week and it worked out for us."

Denver's final touchdown came when a 6-yard pass from Peyton Manning skipped off the hands of wide receiver Eric Decker and into the hands of Joel Dreessen. "I'm going to give him a big hug today," said Decker. The touchdown saved the Broncos from negative consequences from one of their six dropped passes Sunday.

Top-shelf performances: Texans DE J.J. Watt posted 2.5 sacks, six tackles, and three quarterback hits. ... Broncos WR Brandon Stokley logged 5 catches, 68 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter (he had one catch for six yards before then) ... Texans RB Arian Foster rolled up 105 yards on 25 carries.

What they said about Andre Johnson's 12-yard catch on third-and-5 with 2:49 left that virtually clinched the Texans' win:

Johnson: "Matt [Schaub] gave me a chance. I went to Matt earlier before we got the ball and said, 'I've been playing [terrible], just give me a chance; don't give up on me.' He came to me and said that I've been playing too much football to get down on myself. He gave me the opportunity and I was able to make a play."

Texans coach Gary Kubiak: "It doesn't surprise you when it's him with the money on the line."

Broncos CB Champ Bailey: "I was right there. It was just two good players making a play. His quarterback (Schaub) put it right where I couldn't get it."

Numbers you should know: Denver has outscored opponents 45-6 in the fourth quarter, but has been outscored 71-32 in the first three quarters of games this year.

Injury update: Houston QB Matt Schaub had X-rays on his shoulder, but they came back negative. Schaub missed a play in the third quarter after being knocked to the ground on a helmet-to-helmet hit by Broncos LB Joe Mays; he suffered a cut behind the ear on the play. ... Broncos CB Tracy Porter left in the second quarter because of a knee injury, but he did not leave the bench area and was standing and watching from the sideline, in full uniform, throughout the game. ... Broncos LB Nate Irving left with a concussion suffered while covering a punt with 3:41 left in the second quarter. ... Broncos RB Willis McGahee left in the third quarter with a rib injury. ... Broncos WR Matt Willis was hindered by a left hamstring injury. ... Denver TE Jacob Tamme left in the fourth quarter with a groin injury, but returned.

Going forward: Four of the Texans' next five games are at Reliant Stadium, and even though the Packers and Ravens loom in that stretch, Houston could be well-positioned to make itself the team to beat for the AFC's top seed if it keeps playing as it has. The Broncos have as strong a 1-2 record as is possible, given that they've lost by one score to a pair of unbeaten teams, and the visit from the Raiders next week offers them a chance to find their footing.

For up-to-the-minute Broncos updates, follow Andrew Mason on Twitter at @CBSBroncos and @MaseDenver.