By: Bob George
The Houston Texans became the final benefactor of the untimely season-ending leg injury to Oakland quarterback Derek Carr.
Now they get their reward. A trip to Gillette Stadium this Saturday night.
And Las Vegas has installed the Patriots as an early 16-point favorite.
The AFC South champions, who are not the fourth best team in the conference, and certainly not the sixth best, will play the top seeded Patriots this Saturday night. That became official when the Pittsburgh Steelers handled their home field business on Sunday against the ice cold Miami Dolphins. Playing in temperatures in the teens, the Steelers froze the Fish, 30-12, sending the Black and Gold to Kansas City for next weekend and the Texans to Foxborough.
Let it be stated that “on any given Sunday (and Saturday)”, any team can win. Houston has the best defense in the league, several coaches with Patriot lineage, and some offensive weapons that have to be accounted for. The Texans could very well come into Gillette Stadium and do to the Patriots what the Jets did in 2010.
Is it possible? Checking the record, gauging the teams at present, most likely not.
Houston has never won in Foxborough. The only time the Texans have ever beaten the Patriots was the infamous 2009 season finale at NRG (then Reliant) Stadium when Wes Welker blew out his ACL in a meaningless game. In the games played at Foxborough, the Patriots have won by an average score of 38-12, including the postseason.
The teams met in Week 3, during Tom Brady’s suspension on a Thursday night. The Patriots were forced to throw third stringer Jacoby Brissett out there, yet the Patriots won by a 27-0 whitewash. Brock Osweiler, who beat the Patriots in a regular season game at Denver in 2015, looked like a deer in the headlights, completely befuddled and lost.
LeGarrette Blount and the Patriots had their way against Houston in Week 3. (USA TODAY Images)
In the previous playoff match between the two teams, the Patriots easily handled the Texans at home, 41-28 in 2012. That was the infamous “varsity letterman jacket” game, when the Texans showed up looking like high schoolers.
Realistically speaking, Houston looked pretty good on Saturday as they manhandled the undermanned Raiders, 27-14. Osweiler looked much more like the playoff stud Houston dreamed of when they gave him that wad of cash in the offseason. The vaunted Texan defense, even without J.J. Watt, looks menacing. Down lineman Jadeveon Clowney and linebacker Whitney Mercilus spearhead a ferocious attack, and if you want to run the ball, someone named Vince Wilfork will be there to either stop you or tie up blockers so that linebackers will swallow you up.
Of course, you have an all-Patriot top coaching brass. Head coach Bill O’Brien was Brady’s former position coach. Offensive coordinator George Godsey was Rob Gronkowski’s former position coach. And defensive coordinator Romeo (RAC) Crennel was the same here in Foxborough until he left to become a head coach himself after the 2004 season. Also, do not forget Houston linebacker coach Mike Vrabel, who won three Super Bowls as a Patriot by both playing great defense and catching touchdowns (he is one of only two Patriots in history with two Super Bowl touchdowns, the other being David Givens). Vrabel is winning tons of praise from his linebackers for his coaching expertise, not that that should surprise anyone.
The weather should slightly favor the Patriots, but it won’t completely incapacitate Houston. The predicted high temperature for Saturday is 35 degrees, with a low of 26 and there’s snow in the forecast. It won’t be like the frigid weather in Pittsburgh and Green Bay on Sunday. But Houston, who plays in a balmy city with a retractable roof, will not find weather conditions comfortable.
That said, here is basically what the Patriots have to do.
Defensively, play their game and do not allow Osweiler to get comfortable in the pocket. His best receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, can be dealt with. The Patriots should be wary of tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, who was second to Hopkins in pass receptions this season. Lamar Miller did top the 1,000-yard mark in rushing, but he won’t really strike fear into the Patriot front seven. The key to stopping the Houston offense will revolve around Osweiler, like it did in Week 3 when they were shut out.
Offensively, the Patriots will definitely have to account for Clowney and Mercilus. Clowney is slowly becoming the feared defensive force since being taken as the top draft pick out of South Carolina in 2014. He had his first career interception on Saturday early in the playoff game against Oakland, but that was more about being in the right place at the right time. Mercilus is versatile and is helping neutralize the absence of the injured Watt.
In the past, all the Patriots had to do was to account for Watt and that was that. But with Clowney and Mercilus lurking, plus the run-stopping force of Wilfork in the middle, the Patriots will have to do their blocking assignments accordingly and not rely too much on the run game. The Patriots might not be able to drop 40 on Houston, though they did score 27 with Brissett at the helm (who had two fewer yards passing than LeGarrette Blount had yards rushing).
If the Patriots take Houston seriously and not get caught looking ahead to either Kansas City or Pittsburgh the following week, they should win and win easily. Wilfork was disgusted at his team’s lack of effort in Week 3 and told everyone so, so he alone will insure that his players won’t repeat that stinker in September. O’Brien, Godsey and Crennel have the collective smarts and recollections to at least give the Patriots a good game.
But the Patriots aren’t 16-point favorites for nothing. They are the far superior team, they are at home, Brady is back and hotter than ever, and the Patriots have their sights set on the home city of their opponents for a February date with the best NFC team.
The Patriots will take some comfort that the best NFC team won’t be the Giants, who got blistered (finally) in Green Bay on Sunday, 38-13. The Giants are 2-0 against the Patriots in Super Bowls, but Eli Manning and company were sent home for the winter. If you think Bill Belichick cares about the Giants losing, all he will say is “We’re on to Houston.”
And hopefully for the Patriots, they’ll be on to Houston again in February.