A Highly Biased Game Preview
The playoff stakes for both teams could not be higher as the New England Patriots (10-2) limp into Reliant Stadium to face the Houston Texans (6-6) on Sunday night. Since entering the league in 2002, the Texans have faced the Patriots only 6 times which includes their 2013 playoff match up. The Patriots have won 5 of those 6 meeting with the lone Texans victory coming in 2010 after the Patriots had already wrapped up the AFC East and secured a playoff spot. That game, of course, will always be remembered by Patriots fans as the day Wes Welker was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
After a 2-5 start, the Texans were left for dead but they have won 4 out of their last 5 and sit tied at the top of the woeful AFC South with the Colts. For the Patriots, they are bringing a rare 2 game losing streak with them to Texas and are trying to avoid their first three game losing streak since 2002. 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: Against Houston, it would be a tough sell to say that the Patriots don’t have a decisive advantage at quarterback over the Texans. However, Brian Hoyer has done well this season when he is getting help from his running game. In games that Hoyer has played in, when he attempts less than 30 passes per game, the Texans are 2-0….Over 30 pass attempts and the Texans are 2-5.
Running Backs – Texans: Until the Patriots can consistently find some offensive production out of their running back group, most opponents will certainly will have the advantage in this area.
Wide Receivers – Texans: Houston has a solid group of pass catchers led by DeAndre Hopkins who may be one of the best wide receivers in the league that most people have never heard of. The Patriots, on the other hand, have a nicked up group of receivers that could struggle catching a cold right now let alone a football.
Tight Ends – Patriots: With how the tight end position has transformed as an offense weapon in the NFL, usually it’s a difficult task to find a worse group of pass catching tight ends than what the Patriots have without Rob Gronkowski. The Texans, however, made that search pretty easy.
Offensive Line – Texans: The Patriots were praised earlier this season with how well they offensive line was playing as injuries mounted to that group. Unfortunately, the offensive line’s play has deteriorated over the last several weeks. Add in the fact that they cannot run block to save their lives, what was a strength on offense has turned into a serious liability.
Defensive Front Seven – Push: While the Patriots are still near the top of the league in run defense and quarterback sacks, JJ Watt has been on fire lately and has to be licking his chops when looking at the Patriots’ offensive line. Seeing Patriots’ great Vince Wilfork in the opponent’s uniform will certainly be painful for New England fans to watch.
Secondary – Push: While the Texans have allow slightly less yards per game than their New England counterparts, the Patriots have allowed less passing touchdowns which evens out this comparison.
Special Teams – Push: While both teams are fairly even in the return games Stephan Gostkowski would normally give the Patriots a clear advantage. However the horrendous Special Teams play by New England last week leaves the Patriots having to prove their worth in this area.
Coaching – Patriots: Though the Texans got off to a rocky start in 2015, Bill O’Brien has done a nice job keeping his team in playoff contention in a very weak division. Though O’Brien’s job security may be in question with how he handled his quarterback situation, a playoff appearance could buy him another year as Houston’s coach. For the Patriots, Bill Belichick had done one of his best coaching jobs this year masking the deficiencies and the injuries that have decimated the Patriots on the offensive side of the ball. However, after back to back losses, this week’s game could be the biggest challenge he has faced this year.
If we assign 2 points for every category (1 point per team for draws) this is how it lines up:
Key’s to a Patriots Victory:
1) Production from the Running Backs: Over the years, New England has had many pass catchers that have grabbed all the headlines…..Names included Wes Welker, Randy Moss, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski. However, it has always been the unsung work of the pass catching running backs that has driven the offense. In the years that the Patriots’ offense was at its best, players like Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead, and Shane Vereen were healthy and helped dictate the coverages of opposing defenses. The Patriots need to give James White some more opportunities to see if he can provide any offensive spark that has been missing since the loss of Dion Lewis.
2) Protection, Protection, Protection: Tom Brady may feel “Fresh as lettuce” but the 32 hits he has taken over the last three games is a recipe for disaster especially when facing JJ Watt this Sunday. With all the tinkering that the Patriots have done with their offensive line, they need to find the best combination of linemen and try to supplement the protection schemes with running backs and tight ends to keep Brady upright.
3) Don’t let DeAndre Hopkins beat you: Outside of Atlanta’s Julio Jones, no other player has been targeted more than DeAndre Hopkins. Though he has not been a huge threat after the catch, he does lead the league on catches for 1st downs and is tied for 3rd place in the NFL for touchdown receptions. When the Texans need a play, it is obvious on where they will go and the Patriots need to be prepared for that.
Coming off an uncharacteristically sloppy game, the Patriots are staring down the barrel at their first 3 game losing streak in 13 seasons. Though injuries have certainly taken their toll on this team, Belichick’s inexplicable coaching decisions, particularly on special teams last week, only added to the challenges that the Patriots have faced.
This week the Patriots need to stay true to form on defense and special teams with their offense struggling the way it has. Taking unnecessary chances and suffering from poor execution in those two areas will only make the offense’s struggles worse.
Expect a defensive battle with points for both teams generated from costly turnovers.
The Knuckles Prediction: Patriots 23 – Texans 21