The New England Patriots (8-3) travel to Reliant Stadium this Sunday to visit the Houston Texans (2-9). The game will be shown on CBS at 1PM EST, with commentary provided by Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf.
But before we get there, a few words on last week, because oh man.
I’ll admit something shameful. I turned off the game at halftime.
I’d had enough. The Ridley fumble was a killer, to be sure. But then the Brady fumble. And the Blount fumble. It was unfair. The Broncos weren’t even killing the Patriots through the air, as they were used to doing, but through the turnover game on a frigid cold night. I’d had enough.
Five minutes later I got three texts, almost at the same time. “Turn it on.” I did so, just in time to watch Julian Edelman haul in a 5-yard TD pass, and then went on to watch one of the most insane Patriots games of my relatively young life.
But what did we learn about the Patriots from this game? Well, for one the Patriots will have a hard time shutting down both the passing and the rushing game, but can do a hell of a job focusing on one (Patriots against Manning this past week vs. Patriots shutting down the Panthers’ running backs). But two, and most importantly, Tom Brady and the Pats can’t be laughed off just yet, and are in prime position to lock up a playoff bye.
But it’s not set in stone, and despite their record, the Patriots should not be taking it easy on these Houston Texans, even if they, on the surface, only amount to JJ Watt and Andre Johnson dragging the team on their formidable backs. So let’s take a look at this upcoming week.
Key Matchup: JJ Watt vs. Will Svitek
Alright, you’re looking at those two names and you’re immediately cringing. Yes, it’s bad that the NFL’s premiere defensive lineman, and one of the most destructive presences to ever play the sport, is facing up against the Patriots’ third-string right tackle, as Marcus Cannon has been ruled out after hurting his ankle against the Broncos.
To be sure, Will Svitek is a fine versatile backup, and has spent most of his career with the Chiefs, Falcons, and Patriots as a dependable utility player. But to expect him to succeed where scores of starting right tackles across the league have failed, and shut down J.J. Watt, is not fair in the slightest.
We’ve seen that Brady performs best when he has a good clean pocket to throw in. Watt by himself seems to do disrupt that easily, and his presence allows his teammates to also get their licks in. Throw in Watt’s excellent use of his hands in deflecting passes, and Svitek may have a tough time. To be sure, Dan Connolly will be called upon to help out for most of the time, but that can only help so much.
I have all the trust in the world in Dante Scarnecchia and Bill Belichick, but this could very well be the matchup that swings the game.
Three Pre-Game Questions
- What to do about the running game?
The Texans defense is 1st in the NFL in pass defense, giving up less than 175 yards a game in the air. The Texans defense is 22nd in the NFL in rush defense, giving up 118.5 yards a game. What does that spell for this week’s game? The Patriots are gonna run the ball. And run it hard.
But hold that thought. Because the closest thing the Patriots have to a bell-cow, Stevan Ridley, may have delivered the straw in last week’s fumble that broke the proverbial camel’s back. I love Van Riddles. He’s the most dynamic runner on the team, plays with a feisty attitude, and has a play every game that makes you whisper to yourself, “Wow.” But every time he’s hit, you flinch because you wonder if he’s going to fumble. That’s not a trait you want in a lead running back.
That being said, it’s hard to imagine that the Patriots would ever give up on Ridley entirely, or cut him. There’s also a precedent in fumble happy Patriots backs turning reliable, like all-time favorite Kevin Faulk. But it’s harder to imagine that the Patriots would turn around and give Ridley the majority of the carries this Sunday.
As fantastic as Shane Vereen (seriously how great is it to have him back), he’s not exactly a bruising physical runner, best employed as a receiver or change of pace back. LeGarrette Blount isn’t exactly explosive and has similar fumble concerns. Brandon Bolden has looked great in some games (including a solid turnout last week, as well as against the Jets and Bucs) but can disappear at times, such as against Miami (8 att., 22 yards, 7 yards receiving). If he looks good in this game, he may put himself in line to get the starter’s carries while Ridley stays in the doghouse. And against cornerbacks like Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson, Belichick would much rather put the ball on the ground, and open up that play-action game.
2. Can the secondary hold up?
One of the nicest surprises of this year’s Patriots has been the play of the secondary, which has long been the reputed Achilles heel of the teams of the last few years. Devin McCourty deserves Pro Bowl consideration as one of the premier ball-hawks at the safety position. Duron Harmon has stepped in admirably for the injured Steve Gregory, and I have resumed building my life-size bronze statue of him out of the broken pieces of my Zach Sudfeld statue (sigh.). Aqib Talib has shut down every star wide receiver he’s been set up against not named Steve Smith. Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington have been very solid, and Logan Ryan has an excellent nose for the ball.
That being said almost every member of the secondary is banged up one way or another. And despite the Texans’ offensive struggles, and their employ of Case Keenum as a starting quarterback, the Texans are dangerous at wide receiver. Talib will certainly be put on Andre Johnson, who remains one of the best at his position. Rookie DeAndre Hopkins has been electric thus far, and tight end Garrett Graham has been a dependable receiver. If Dennard and Arrington are healthy enough to return, then they should be fine, but their absence, combined with those wideouts’ big-play potential could spell trouble.
3. Will Tom Brady continue his dependable streak and fully turn into Ares, God of War?
Tom Brady has 6 games this season with a completion percentage under 60% (Buffalo, both Jets games, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Miami) and 5 with over 605 (Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Carolina, and Denver). The last three weeks have been especially magnificent, as Brady went 86-123 for 1,072 yards, with 8 TD and 1 INT (the questionable game-ender in Carolina).
When Brady’s on, he’s on. Now that he has Shane Vereen and Rob Gronkowski back, he’s gotten that much better, and has turned the Patriots to being closer to the well-oiled machines of their Super Bowl teams. He has been otherworldly, Olympian in fact, and he’s gotten better as more have criticized him and declared him old and rundown, only strengthening the massive permanent chip on his shoulder. He is Ares, God of War, and he will have vengeance.
Of course, as said above, the Texans pass defense is no pushover. Look for Brady to target Gronkowski and Vereen as much as possible, as the Texans safety/linebacking group is a little more vulnerable than their corners. Of course, if he can get the play-action going, and if the O-Line can keep the bevy of Houston pass-rushers off of him, then this should be fine.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Texans 17
This game reeks of trouble. JJ Watt is really good. So is Andre Johnson. The team has a bunch of young talent across the roster. The Patriots had a huge symbolic win this past Sunday, and the Texans had a hugely demoralizing loss to the Jaguars. The Patriots aren’t one to rest on their laurels, but this could be a sneakily tricky affair…
Except the Texans lost to the Jaguars last week. That doesn’t happen often. The once mighty Texans have struggled without Arian Foster and Brian Cushing, and they are now sitting at 2-9, completely out of the playoff picture. Houston is now playing for a Top 5 draft pick, and the chance to nab Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota, or Brett Hundley to revamp a healthy, young offense. A win against New England would be a nice confidence boost, but nothing else. The Texans are playing for nothing, the Patriots are still chasing a 2-seed in the playoffs.
Brady and Belichick know better than to not take Houston seriously. The Patriots pass rush bullies a weak offensive line, the Patriots go to the run with Bolden, and Brady sets up his play-action. Patriots settle into an easy win.