The Patriots take the field in the Divisional Playoff game against the Houston Texans on Saturday night in Foxboro. Kickoff is slated for 8:15 p.m. and the weather is supposed to get cold again with temperatures in low-to-mid 20s at the start of the game.
The Pats worked hard this season to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs and the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC goes thru Gillette. They’re taking a Houston team, basically playing with house money. Until the Raiders lost two QBs, nobody gave them much of a chance of reaching this round and few of the experts covering the NFL give them much of a shot this week. That’s why they play the games on the field.
I would expect Bill O’Brien to be very aggressive this week. Look for the Texans to empty the playbook and throw as much at the Patriots as they can. 4th and 1 at anywhere near mid-field, they’ll go for it….at least they should.
With a win on Saturday, the Patriots will set another record, passing the Oakland Raiders and be playing in their sixth straight conference championship. Nothing says sustained excellence better than that. So, with that in mind….
Here are our five players from a Patriots perspective to watch on Sunday:
Quarterback Tom Brady: The Patriots QB had a tremendous season after coming off his league-imposed “vacation” for Weeks 1-4. Brady continues to amaze, even at the ripe old age of 39. In truth, he’s playing better now than he was at 29. In 2016, he set a new NFL record for touchdown to interception ratio, throwing 28 TDs to just 2 INTs. He’ll also add to his record just by taking the field on Saturday and play in his 32nd postseason game, the equivalent of two NFL seasons.
He’ll be facing a Texans defense that knows the Patriots well. DC Romeo Crennel held the same position here for the first three Super Bowls of the Patriots era. Linebacker coach Mike Vrabel played an integral part of those teams. Houston head coach Bill O’Brien was the offensive coordinator here. So, Houston knows what the Pats like to do, especially in certain downs and situations. Crennel will try to change his pre-snap looks to something different once the ball is hiked to slow Brady’s thought process down and give his pass rush that extra half-second to get home.
Of course, Brady knows this too, he’ll be ready for the shifting line just before the snap, to the secondary members shifting at the snap. It all will come down to execution. Brady will have all his WRs at his disposal this week. The team misses Rob Gronkowski, but they’ve adapted to absence the best that they can at this point. Brady will lean on his buddy Julian Edelman heavily, especially early in this one.
Cornerback Logan Ryan: The Pats corner has traditionally been tasked with covering the Texans best wide receiver and their most talented offensive player, DeAndre Hopkins in past meetings. He’ll probably get the nod there again. In two meetings between the teams in 2015 and in Week 3 this season, Ryan covered Hopkins and allowed only 5 catches on 11 targets for 96 yards with two passes defended.
Ryan began the year on the right, #2 CB opposite Malcolm Butler. But the team leaned on the 25-year old’s versatility and shifted him inside to the slot. That allowed the defense to move the bigger Eric Rowe outside with Butler. The results have been much better playing from the entire secondary. Ryan leads the team with 92 tackles and is solid in run support as well as three QB hits and a sack blitzing from the slot. He has logged 11 passes defended and a pair of interceptions on the year.
Look for Ryan to be tasked with covering Hopkins again with some over the top help and trying to bracket the Texans top receiver. He’s elevated his play down the stretch, allowing just around 40 percent of passes thrown his way to being caught.
Wide Receiver Julian Edelman: Edelman entered this season as a bit of question mark, at least physically. After his foot surgery in 2015, he re-injured it in training camp during a joint practice and things were looking a bit dicey. But after a somewhat slow start, Edelman answered the bell for all 16 games and turned in an excellent 98 catch, 1106-yard performance in 2016.
Now he’s healthy and leads the deepest group of wide receivers the Patriots have had in the Brady/Belichick era. He’ll be playing in his 13th playoff game of his career against the Texans and just needs two catches to pass Wes Welker for most post-season catches (69, you know what that means Gronk?) in Patriots history. But for Edelman, he’s like Brady and the rest of the Patriots under Belichick. Personal stats mean nothing, the only thing that matters is getting the win.
Look for him and Brady to try to get the chains moving quickly on Saturday night. Houston has a good pass defense that allowed just 201 yards per game during the regular season. The Patriots will attempt to use the quickness of Edelman to get those short, crossing routes open and create some space for the other receivers to work in.
Defensive End Trey Flowers: The Patriots defensive end has had a breakout season in 2016. After having an impressive training camp last year in his rookie campaign, he suffered some different injuries that caused him to play in just a single game. But the soft-spoken native of Alabama has really stepped up his game in 2016.
The Patriots under Belichick and Matt Patricia, like for their defensive players to be versatile and Flowers has fit the bill perfectly. He’s played defensive end and has frequently been pushed inside on passing downs as a smaller, interior pass rusher. He’s been just as good at setting the edge in the running game as rushing the QB from the edge and push the pocket from the inside. Frequently lauded by the coaches for his solid play, he’s been playfully nicknamed “Technique” by his teammates. But since the midway point of the season, Flowers has logged seven sacks, most on the team.
He’ll go against Duane Brown for part of this upcoming game. The Texans LT missed the first contest and he spearheaded an effort against Oakland last week that kept the Raiders pass rush from sacking Brock Osweiler once. Flowers will be looking to get into the pocket and disrupt the timing of the passing game. Patricia will move him around both inside and out but look for the 2nd year pro playing in his first playoff game to be a factor.
Offensive Tackle Nate Solder: Much of the talk during last week’s Wild Card game centered around the uber talented Houston DE/LB Jadaveon Clowney. Clowney is an athletic freak who had a tremendous impact on the game, blowing plays up in the backfield, creating pressure and intercepting a screen pass in the flat. Looking to neutralize him will be Patriots LT Nate Solder.
Solder was limited to just four games in 2015 before being placed on IR. He’s returned and has played outstanding this season. But with the unexpected emergence of RT Marcus Cannon, little has been mentioned about Solder’s play. He hasn’t allowed a sack since Week 10.
This promises to be a great matchup. Clowney was limited by injuries early in his career and came on at the end of 2015. Now fully healthy, he’s been the force that many foresaw for him when he was the #1 pick in the draft. Solder will have his hands full with the talented pass rusher and if need be, the Patriots will double him up. But look for the coaches to match them one-on-one initially.
Who Do You Got This Weekend: With the Divisional Round of the 2016 NFL Playoffs here, it usually means some of the best football of the season. These games are normally some of the best to watch and this week’s slate has some intriguing matchups. Last week, I went 3-1, whiffing on the Giants and their own version of the Love Boat cruise.
So, for this week:
New England over Houston- see our breakdown here.
Atlanta over Seattle- Matt Ryan finds holes in the LOB without Earl Thomas. Seattle just hasn’t been that good on the road this season, with the exception being their game in NE.
Kansas City over Pittsburgh- This will be one of those weird games where either the Chiefs win a close one or get blown out. I see the Chiefs holding serve over an explosive Pittsburgh offense with a late field goal to win the game. The home field advantage here, being in Arrowhead is the difference. But the “X-Factor” is LaVeon Bell for the Steelers. KC didn’t have a very good rush defense, and Bell can turn the game in a hurry.
Dallas over Green Bay: Ditto for home field. The Cowboys offensive line and their running game will be the difference at home as they control the clock and limit how much Aaron Rodgers and the Pack’s offense has the ball. Word to the wise for Dallas. You’ve ridden a rookie QB all the way to home-field advantage for the playoffs. Let him do the things he’s done all season. Don’t be like the OC for Alabama and get all conservative with Dak Prescott now.
Stay tuned to PatsFans.com as well have up-to-the-minute breaking news as well as post-game analysis.
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