Texans vs. Patriots Playoff Preview and Pick: Can Houston Pull Off the Upset?
Come 4:30pm this Sunday afternoon, this past Saturday’s 19-13 win over the adorable little Cincinnati Bengals in the friendly confines of Reliant Stadium is going to feel like it took place a decade ago to the Houston Texans.
Because, once 4:30 rolls around, they’ll suddenly find themselves in the not-so-friendly, likely freezing confines of Gillette Stadium looking across the way at Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, clad in blue and surely exuding confidence.
The last time they found themselves in this place, they came into the game chattering about how it was the biggest in the franchise’s history. Before the clock hit the 11-minute mark of the second quarter that night, however, the Texans trailed 21-0 on their way to an embarrassing 42-14 tail-kicking of the highest order in front of a national ESPN audience.
So, what are their chances of turning the tables this time around with the stakes at their highest? Let’s see.
1. Control the clock
This isn’t up for debate. The Texans’ only real chance of going into Foxborough and winning this game hinges upon whether or not they can keep Matt Schaub on the field and Tom Brady off of it as long as possible. Time of possession was nearly 50/50 in the first meeting, but that was due in large part to the relative ease with which New England’s offense was able to march right down the field for touchdown-after-touchdown. In the win over the Bengals, the Texans dominated the clock, holding the ball for nearly 39 minutes, compared to just 21 for Cincinnati. That has been Houston’s formula for success all season long, and they’re going to have to find a way to put together long, clock-eating drives. They’ll also have to make sure that those drives are ending with touchdowns, not field goals. The Texans scored just one touchdown against the Bengals, and had to settle for four Shayne Graham field goals. You can get away with that against Cincinnati. You cannot get away with that against the Patriots.
2. Free J.J. Watt
In the first meeting, Watt had decent success getting into the backfield, as he had three hits on Brady. However, none of those were sacks, and he had no tackles for loss. Watt led the NFL in both sacks and tackles for loss this season, and Wade Phillips is going to have to find creative ways to help him get past the line of scrimmage and apply pressure to Brady. Danieal Manning, Glover Quin and Johnathan Joseph were the three leading tacklers for the Texans against the Patriots in the previous matchup. That’s obviously not good, because they’re all defensive backs, meaning Brady was completing passes consistently and easily. Watt (and the rest of Houston’s pass rush) is going to have to be huge if the Texans have any hopes of limiting Brady’s effectiveness. We know Tom Brady is no RGIII when it comes to agility or elusiveness, so forcing him to use his feet and take his attention away from what’s happening downfield will have to be Houston’s recipe for defensive success.
3. Win the turnover battle
This is obviously a key for every team, but if the Texans come out negatively in the turnover margin on Sunday, they are going to lose. Matt Schaub threw a terrible pick-six to Leon Hall that accounted for the lone Bengals’ touchdown of the game on Saturday, and he’s going to have to be much more careful with the ball this week. Houston’s offensive line did a good job of keeping Schaub upright last week, and that is a necessity, because a skittish Schaub is a rattled Schaub, and a rattled Schaub equates to an “L” for the Texans. Defensively, as mentioned above, Wade Phillips is going to have to get creative and show Brady some looks he hasn’t seen before with the hope that they can force an uncharacteristic mistake or two from the Pats’ QB.
1. Stop Arian Foster
Foster ran wild against the Bengals, toting it 32 times for 140 yards with a TD. In the first meeting, New England did a great job of containing Houston’s dynamic back to the tone of just 46 yards on 15 carries. Obviously, getting out to a big early lead helped with this, as Houston was forced to alter their gameplan and take to the air with the hopes of getting back into the game. The Texans certainly have the weapons to hurt you in the passing game, but their goal is to control the pace of the game, and they do that with the run game. Schaub has been pretty unremarkable over the past few weeks, so. if you’re the Patriots, it should be your prerogative to take Foster out of the game and force Schaub to make plays to beat you.
2. Pass. Pass. Pass again
Houston’s first two losses of the season came in blowout fashion at the hands of the Packers and Patriots. What do the Packers and Patriots each to exceptionally well? You got it, throw the football. What’s the weakness of the Texans’ defense? Right again! Pass coverage. Rodgers and Brady were each able to essentially gash the Houston secondary at will, and the Texans had no answer whatsoever. That’s why it’s so vital for the Texans to get to Brady and disrupt his rhythm. When he has all day to read the coverage and pick it apart, the Patriots are essentially invincible. So, if New England is once again successful in keeping Brady’s jersey clean and keeping J.J. Watt and friends out of his face, the Patriots may be able to deliver a death blow to Houston early, once again.
3. Don’t take it lightly
Houston was being written-off as a “pretender” by essentially every possible pundit/writer/fan down-the-stretch of the season as they seemingly hit the skids, and rightfully so. The Patriots should come into this game with tremendous confidence, knowing that they have the big-time upper-hand, at least on paper. However, as Bill Belichick is surely preaching this week, they had better not come into this one looking ahead to an AFC Championship date with the Broncos in two weeks as if it’s preordained. This is a franchise that lost a Super Bowl after entering the game with a record of 18-0. Complacency is a killer, and the Patriots can’t afford to look past Houston as if they’re the Jaguars this week.
Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe certainly provided Houston’s players with plenty of bulletin board material with his scathing, dismissive article over the weekend, essentially declaring that New England is the first team in the history of the sport to enter the playoffs with consecutive bye weeks. I’m fully expecting the Texans to come into this game with a much better idea of what to expect, and the coaching staff should have them much better-prepared than they were prior to the first matchup between these teams. Will it be enough? I’m not so sure. The Patriots certainly have their lulls from time-to-time, but I don’t necessarily get the feeling that they will indeed just look past the Texans to Denver. They know what it takes to beat Houston, and I think they’ll have enough to get it done. It won’t be nearly the laugher that it was the first time around, but (as much as it pains me to say, as a Texans fan) I think the Patriots will win again.