Houston Texans (13-4) at New England Patriots (12-4)
Game Day: Sunday 4:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Line: Patriots -10
Series Record: New England leads 3-1 (1-0 this season)
Just one brief month ago, the Houston Texans were widely considered the best team in the NFL. Sporting a dazzling 11-1 record and clad with snazzy new letterman jackets to combat the brutal 60 degree New England winter, the Texans were thoroughly humiliated on Monday Night Football, in what was then considered the biggest game in franchise history.
How things can change in one month.
That 42-14 pasting in Foxborough started a tailspin for the Texans that saw the team lose three of their final four contests and blow a chance to secure home field advantage. Failing to lock up that number one seed now results in Houston returning to the scene of the crime for a rematch with a much more playoff-hardened New England Patriots team and to contend with the adverse conditions of an outdoor game in the middle of January.
Too bad they’re leaving those letterman jackets in Houston.
Patriots Game Plan
Back in Week 14, Bill Belichick called an early timeout after seeing what the Texans plan of attack was going to be. It’s not clear if Belichick picked up on a Houston tendency or cadence, but what is clear is that a complete beat-down followed and there’s little reason to think that the Patriots won’t try to manipulate the same weaknesses again.
As always, the Patriots’ top-rated offense will be led by Tom Brady and the passing game. Brady had no problem picking apart Houston’s fading secondary for just under 300 yards and four passing scores and will be looking to again capitalize on mismatches.
A healthy Rob Gronkowski will only add to the potential problems for Houston’s safties. Fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez lit up Houston for eight grabs and two touchdowns a month ago and will be a threat underneath and in the red-zone, while Gronk stretches the field.
The Texans contained Wes Welker fairly well, but were burned on long bombs to Donte’ Stallworth (on IR) and Brandon Lloyd. Look for Welker to have a bigger role in the rematch.
While New England boasts the league’s fourth ranked passing attack, they also have a top ten ground game, led by Stevan Ridley‘s 1263 yards and 12 touchdowns. They’ll look to establish Ridley early when Houston is in a nickel defense and hope a commitment to pound the rock leads to play-action opportunities downfield for Gronkowski and Lloyd.
Texans Game Plan
Houston’s offense has tailed-off rather dramatically over the last month. Quarterback Matt Schaub hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass in three consecutive games and has tallied only one versus four interceptions since the Week 14 disaster. If Houston is to have any chance of staying in this game, Schaub must drastically improve his play.
While the Texans’ passing game has waned, Arian Foster has played an even bigger role. Foster carried 32 times for 140 yards in Houston’s Wild Card victory over Cincinnati. In three career post-season games, Foster has surpasses 100 yards each time. Look for Houston to try an establish the run early and continue to feed Foster the ball as long as the game is within reach.
Should the Texans have success establishing the run and controlling the clock, Ben Tate could spell Foster and see 8-10 carries. Justin Forsett could also see a handful of plays, but is typically used on passing plays and draws.
The Houston passing game is much more predicated on the rushing attack. Establishing Foster is crucial for Houston’s play-action and roll-out-heavy zone scheme.
Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson will remain Houston’s main downfield threat and will look to take advantage of New England’s 29th ranked pass defense. Kevin Walter is the other starting wide-out, but along with Lestar Jean and Devier Posey play secondary roles in the passing game.
Tight end Owen Daniels is clearly Houston’s second best receiver and main benefactor when Schaub rolls out. FB/TE James Casey is an underrated receiver who look to draw a mismatch in the flats.
Had Houston been able to simply defeat Indianapolis or Minnesota (both playoff teams), they wouldn’t be in the unenviable position of having to travel to a hostile environment to relive a humiliating defeat that started their late-season swoon. Meanwhile, things worked out perfectly for the Patriots, as they had a week off to prepare for a team they just throttled.
Nobody expects the Texans to have a chance in this game. Gary Kubiak has never really shown himself to be capable of overcoming adversity or an aggressive enough play-caller to trade blows with an elite team like the Pats.
Still, there’s always a first time for everything. Look for Houston to pound the ball early and often and try to keep New England’s offense off the field. About the only way to beat the Patriots is with a successful and relentless pass-rush and the Texans, led by J.J. Watt, are capable of providing that.
Houston will slow down the pace of the game and keep Tom Brady on the sidelines through much of the first half, but Bill Belichick will again make the right adjustments and the Patriots will pull away late for another appearance in the AFC Championship.