The AFC Divisional Round opens this weekend as the Houston Texans travel north to take on the New England Patriots. This will be 9th meeting between these two franchises including a 2012 Divisional Playoff game that the Patriots won 41-28. Overall though the Patriots lead the all-time series 7-1.
Saturday’s game is a Week 3 rematch when the Patriots beat the Texans 27-0 behind LeGarrette Blount’s 105 yard and 2 touchdown performance. A lot has changed since week 3…the Houston Texans went on to sweep their division and secured the AFC South Division title for the second year in a row while the Patriots welcomed back Tom Brady in Week 5 and went on to have the best record in the NFL at 14-2.
A ticket to the AFC Championship Game is on the line so in yet another futile attempt to be non-bias and analytical, both teams were broken down in key areas to see how they will match up against each other and which one may have the key to a victory.
Quarterback – Patriots: While the Texans ownership had high hopes that opening their wallet to Brock Osweiler would be the solution to their quarterback question, sadly it has not been. Osweiler struggled all season long trying to grasp Bill O’Brien’s offense and has been wildly inaccurate all season long. After being benched late in the season, Osweiler returned to the starting lineup last week and all of Houston collectively cheered that for the first time this season, Osweiler played a game without throwing an interception or being sacked. For the Patriots, it would be an egregious understatement of epic proportions stating that having Tom Brady as the starting QB is an improvement over Week 3 starter Jacoby Brissett.
Running Backs – Patriots: After escaping the wasteland of Florida, Lamar Miller found a team that was willing to give him the ball and he set a personal best of 268 rushing attempt in only 14 games this season. In the AFC, he was 6th in rushing yards right behind New England’s LeGarrette Blount. While both teams have very capable featured backs, it the depth and versatility that the Patriots have in James White and Dion Lewis that gives them the advantage in this match up.
Wide Receivers – Patriots: While the Texans have the star power of DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, the Patriots have assembled a versatile wide receiving corps 5 players deep all capable of making big plays and critical catches during a game.
Tight Ends – Texans: Without Rob Gronkowski in the lineup next to Martellus Bennett, the next best pass catching duo at tight end very well may be the Texans’ C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin. Each has over 50 catches and a combine 6 touchdowns.
Offensive Line – Patriots: While it’s clear that the Patriots Offensive line will have their hands full with Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and Vince Wilfork, New England’s Dante Scarnecchia has this Patriots Offensive Line playing at a much higher level than their Houston counterparts.
Defensive Front Seven – Push: Houston is holding the “NFL’s #1 Defense” title for allowing the least amount of total yards this year. However, the Patriots actually have allowed less rushing yards this season and have more quarterback sacks than their Texans counterparts.
Secondary – Texans: Though both teams feature some talented defensive backs, the Texans have three very good corners that can match up man to man to the Patriots WRs if needed. Houston’s secondary clearly allowed less yards but both secondary units had virtually the same amount of interceptions and held opposing quarterbacks to a similar QB Rating.
Special Teams – Push: While both teams have similar stats in the kicking and punting department, the team that ends up with the best return game may make the difference in this game. During the Week 3 matchup, the Texans’ special team turnovers were the catalyst for the Patriots to break that game wide open. Since that time, the Patriots have had their return game struggles [looking at you Cyrus Jones] but the return of Danny Amendola could help that situation.
Coaching – Patriots: For the third consecutive year, Bill O’Brien has led the Texans to 9-7 records including back to back division titles and their first playoff win since 2012. What has been even more impressive is that he has accomplished this with 8 different starting quarterbacks. Even with this success, Bill O’Brien’s job still remains a matter of speculation because of the seeming rift over the owner’s signing of Brock Osweiler. For New England, Bill Belichick has his team in the playoffs for the 14th time in 17 years and poised for another deep playoff run. This season may have been one of Belichick’s best coaching jobs for having to start three different Quarterbacks and revamp his defense as the season has progressed. No matter how the season ends, there is little doubt that Bill Belichick is still the best head coach in the NFL.
If we assign 2 points for every category (1 point per team for draws) this is how it lines up:
Keys to a Patriots Victory:
Don’t Read The Press Clipping: While there is every indication that the Patriots are a superior team on paper, there is a game to be played and the players need to stay focused on that fact. Though the Patriots coordinators have been interviewing around the NFL, they have had two weeks to prepare the players not to look past this game.
2) Winning on First Down: Whether it’s on offense or defensive, New England has to win on first down. Offensively, the Patriots needs to get positive yards on first down to make later downs more manageable with both Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus lurking on the Texans’ defense. For the Defense, putting the Texans offense into long down and distance situations will put the game directly into Brock Osweiler’s hands which has not always been the best option for Houston this year.
3) Watch Those Tight Ends: Most people probably didn’t even realize that the Houston Texans had a pair of Tight Ends that each had 50 catches this year. Though the Texans’ passing offense has not functioned particularly well this year, Brock Osweiler has become very dependent on the tight end position. The Patriots need to make sure that both tight ends are accounted for on passing downs and not allow free releases down the seams.
On paper, New England enters this game giving up the largest point spread in the NFL playoffs in 40 years. Regardless of that there is a game to be played and, as it is with every other Sunday, anything can happen. As it has been in the last few seasons for the Patriots this game will come down to New England’s Offensive Line being able to provide enough protection for Tom Brady so that he can get the ball out of his hands and into the hands of his playmakers.
Expect a game much closer than advertised with a big defensive play to break things open in the second half.
The Knuckles Prediction: Patriots 27 – Texans 17