Week 3 kicks off with the Houston Texans heading north to take on the New England Patriots in a mid-week battle of AFC Powerhouses. There are a lot of familiar faces in this contest starting with one time Patriots stalwart Vince Wilfork and former Offensive Coordinator, now Texans Head Coach, Bill O’Brien.
The Patriots and Texans have met 7 times including 1 postseason meeting with the Patriots leading the series 6-1. The Patriots, however, enter this game with a rookie quarterback in Jacoby Brissett, starting in place of Jimmy Garoppolo who is sidelined with a shoulder injury. The stakes are high in this early season showdown 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 – Texans: The Texans opened their checkbook this past off season and landed, what they hope to be, their long term answer at quarterback in Brock Osweiler. Though Osweiler play has been a little up and down to start the season, he has made enough plays to lead the Texans to a 2-0 start. For the Patriots, rookie Jacoby Brissett makes his first NFL start in place of the injured Jimmy Garoppolo. Though Brissett had a very good preseason and has shown some poise, it’s a tall order for him to step in and carry the team on his shoulders if needed.
Running Backs – Push: After escaping the wasteland of Miami, Lamar Miller seems to have found a team that is willing to let him carry the ball. In two games he already has about 25% of the carries that he had all last year withering away in South Florida. For New England, LeGarrette Blount has been carrying the ball with authority since returning from a hip injury that ended his 2015 campaign. Blount and Miller are the 4th and 5th leading rushers in the NFL respectively.
Wide Receivers – Push: The Patriots do not have the star power that the Texans possess in DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller. However, the Patriots have a very deep group that not only work well within New England’s offensive philosophy but have been making timely plays when needed.
Tight Ends – Patriots: Normally, Rob Gronkowski’s unknown playing status would cause waves of panic in Patriots Fan Nation. Much to everyone’s pleasant surprise, this year Martellus Bennett has provided both a viable receiving target and has been serviceable blocker when asked to do so.
Offensive Line – Push: Both the Patriots and Texans offensive lines have posted similar statistics in both pass protection and in run blocking so there is no clear advantage between the two groups. However, the Patriots offensive line does have the bigger challenge this week against Houston’s Front Seven.
Defensive Front Seven – Houston: Though both squads have been strong against the run, Houston does get the edge with their ability to get to opposing quarterbacks. Even though J.J. Watt gets all of the headlines for the Texans, linebackers John Simon and Whitney Mercilus have had strong starts to season when asked to blitz. The Texans currently lead the NFL in quarterback sacks (9).
Secondary – Texans: Though both teams feature some talented defensive backs, the Texans have been especially strong early in the season allowing a QB rating of 71.7 to opposing quarterbacks. The Patriots were heavily challenged Week 1 vs the Arizona Cardinals but seemed to play down to their competition in Week 2. Though it’s possible that Houston’s secondary is benefiting from the exceptional play of their front seven, on paper they have the statistical edge over the Patriots.
Special Teams – Push: Both teams are fairly even in their return and coverage games and feature kickers that can put up points when needed.
Coaching – Patriots: Coming off of a division title in 2015, Bill O’Brien has done a nice job with Texans in his first two years while dealing with major questions at Quarterback since his arrival. The signing of Brock Osweiler is going to be a work in progress but there is a lot of talent on the roster to work with. For the Patriots, Bill Belichick has done one of his best coaching jobs in the first two weeks of the season. No one has been able to mask deficiencies on his roster or get more out of the bottom end of his roster than Bill Belichick. Starting a rookie quarterback on a short week may be the greatest coaching challenge that Belichick has faced in a long time.
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:
1) Utilize Running Backs in the Passing Game: Knowing that the Patriots are starting a rookie quarterback, it is safe to assume that the Texans will try to put as much pressure on him to force him into mistakes. Utilizing James White in the passing game or even getting the ball to LeGarrette Blount in space could pay huge dividends against an aggressive defense.
2) Don’t Get Beat Deep: The Texans have two deep threats in DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller are averaging 23.4 and 13.9 per catch respectively. The Patriots need to find a way to limit their deep pass opportunities and force Brock Osweiler to find someone else on the Texans that he can go to.
3) Special Teams, Special Teams, Special Teams: Last Sunday, watching Stephen Gostkowski miss a field goal to put a game out of reach was a rare special teams miscue you don’t normally see from New England. With the offense taking a step back with Jacoby Brissett starting, New England must find other ways to generate points. It isn’t out of the ordinary for Belichick led Patriots team to come up with a big special teams play at moments like this.
At week 3, the Patriots are starting their 2nd Quarterback for the first time since 2008. A revolving door at starting quarterback has been common place in the AFC East over the last 15 years but it is not something that New England has had to deal with in quite some time. Due to this situation, the Patriots are home underdogs for the first time since 2005.
The great equalizer for this game is that it is in Foxboro and on a short week which should give some tactical and logistical advantage to the Patriots and their players. Belichick will have to dig deep into his coaching bag of tricks this week to try to keep this game close and hope that a well-timed Stephen Gostkowski field goal can pull out a slim victory.
The Knuckles Prediction: Patriots 19 – Texans 17