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The AFC East title is in the bag for the Patriots, so the focus of the last quarter of the season shifts to playoff seeding. And there’s no better way to kick that off than with a Game-Of-The-Year caliber matchup between the Houston Texans and the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on Monday night. The Texans (11-1, currently first place in the AFC) have been one of the favorites to win the conference since the season opened, and they’ve more than lived up to the hype. Boasting extreme balance in all phases of the game, Houston represents the biggest challenge the Patriots have faced to this point in the season.
While a win against the Texans still doesn’t guarantee the Patriots a first round bye, a loss would eliminate them from contention for the top seed in the AFC. For Houston, this game is less about the tangible benefit to their standings, and more about sending a message to the rest of the league. After a few wins against lesser competition that were closer than some felt they should have been, they will be looking to prove that they are indeed as good as their record indicates. For a team and a fan base that is just getting used to success, this is a statement game for their franchise.
Combine these factors with a stage like Monday Night Football, and the intensity should be raised a level once the ball is kicked off.
|Record||9-3 (1st in AFCE)||11-1 (1st in AFCS)|
|Points/G||35.8 (1st)||29.3 (2nd)|
|Points All./G||21.7 (T-14th)||18.4 (4th)|
|Rush Yds/G||140.8 (8th)||142.5 (6th)|
|Rush Yds All./G||100.8 (9th)||87.6 (2nd)|
|Pass Yds/G||285.5 (6th)||247.1 (10th)|
|Pass Yds All./G||279.9 (29th)||235 (19th)|
|Takeaways||33 (2nd)||26 (T-5th)|
|Giveaways||9 (1st)||12 (T-4th)|
|TO Diff.||24 (1st)||14 (T-2nd)|
While they didn’t miss a beat against the Jets, the Patriots felt the sting of Rob Gronkowski’s absence in their game against Miami last week. With the injuries still plaguing their O-Line, Gronk’s blocking skills are as missed as his receiving skills, and it showed for the majority of the first three quarters. And where the Pats had a little wiggle room against a subpar Dolphins offense, they won’t be able to afford too may pointless drives while trying to match the high powered Texans offense.
Of course the Texans are not without injuries of their own. Linebacker Brian Cushing, perennially one of their leading tacklers, was placed on IR earlier in the season, and they will be without #1 cornerback Johnathan Joseph as well. Despite those injuries, JJ Watt, who leads the team with 16.5 sacks, remains a huge threat. Watt has become one of the most disruptive players in the NFL, displaying not just the ability to rush the passer, but also to completely destroy running schemes.
Given the Patriots question marks at offensive guard, look for the Texans to shift Watt inside more, both to give him the most favorable matchups and to get his long arms into the middle of the field. With 15 pass deflections on the season, Watt could almost single-handedly clog up the middle throwing lanes, which is where Tom Brady tends to make his bread. The potential return of Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly to the Patriots line would help, and Brandon Lloyd will have to be a factor in this game, allowing Brady the full use of the sidelines to give him the best lane options possible.
There’s no real good way to defend the Texans’ offense, but it all starts by limiting the running game, a feat easier said than done. Arian Foster is a tough, elusive runner, and he’s complimented by Ben Tate and Justin Forsett, both productive in their own right. The Patriots run defense has been solid this year, especially when healthy, which they look to be heading into this game.
The front seven will need to hold down the bulk of the run defense responsibilities, because loading up the box just isn’t an option against the Texans’ passing game. WR Andre Johnson might be the most complete deep threat in the game, and will need to draw double coverage for the majority of this game. There is simply no member of the New England secondary that can cover him one on one consistently. This will open things up for WR Kevin Walter (a consistently productive slot receiver for his entire career), and TE Owen Daniels, who leads the team with 6 TD Receptions. QB Matt Schaub is not only capable of making the big plays, but rarely turns the ball over. He’s only thrown nine interceptions all year, and has only fumbled once.
Look for the Patriots to employ more of the big nickel in this game, with an extra safety (perhaps Patrick Chung) in on early downs. While not perfect, this may help them cover the pass while still providing run support.
– The early weather forecast has Gillette stadium rainy but warm. The Patriots would probably like it to be a little nastier to give them a bigger advantage over a visiting dome team.
– With Julian Edelman being placed on IR, Donte Stallworth has been signed to fill some of the void. How much he is able to do in week one remains to be seen, and regardless someone else will need to fill in for Edelman’s punt return duties, most likely Wes Welker.
– The last time Tom Brady faced a Wade Phillips-led defense was against Dallas in 2007, where he shredded them for 388 yards, 5 TDs and 0 Ints, including a 69-yard catch and run to the above-mentioned Donte Stallworth.
Even with players returning from injury, this is a banged up Patriots offense right now, and as good as the defense has looked in recent weeks, the Texans provide the most complete challenge they’ll have faced all year. Home field tends to work in the Patriots favor, but it may not be enough to pull out the victory Monday Night. However, it will be a close, hard fought game and should give fans hope for a potential playoff rematch, which would feature a healthy Rob Gronkowski.
Texans 27, Patriots 24