Fast Start Crucial as Patriots Close Out Regular Season Against Playoff-Hungry Texans

Fast Start Crucial as Patriots Close Out Regular Season Against Playoff-Hungry Texans FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The AFC East champion New England Patriots travel to Houston to put the finishing touches on the regular season. While the Patriots are playoff bound, the Texans need a victory and a whole heaping of help to qualify for the postseason for the first time in franchise history.

The Patriots are 2-0 all-time against the Texans, and their only meeting in Houston was one of the most entertaining games of the 2003 season. After the Texans went ahead 20-13 with 3:11 remaining in the fourth quarter, Tom Brady hit tight end Daniel Graham for a four-yard touchdown on fourth down with 40 seconds left in regulation to force overtime. Then, Adam Vinatieri kicked a 28-yard field goal with 41 seconds remaining in the extra period.

New England’s last trip to Reliant Stadium came later that season in Super Bowl XXXVIII, and they pulled out a 32-29 victory against the Carolina Panthers.

When and Where

Sunday, Jan. 3, 2010, 1 p.m. (CBS)
Reliant Stadium, Houston, Tx.

Records

Patriots 10-5 (4-2 AFC East)
Texans 8-7 (1-5 AFC South)

Skinny

This is the third time in the last five years the Patriots have played the sit-or-start game. With the division title secure and little the Patriots can do to improve their playoff seeding, the outcome of Sunday’s game doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning.

Therefore, does Bill Belichick rest his starters to avoid injury, or will he get them a few more reps to keep them sharp for the playoffs? Naturally, the Patriots head coach won’t tip his hand, and his players aren’t saying much either.

“Being a professional, you want to go out there and play to the best of your ability every given week,” said wide receiver Wes Welker. “This is what we live for, and we want to go out there and play every Sunday and get that opportunity. We always look forward to going out there and playing wherever the case may be.”

It’s unlikely defensive linemen Vince Wilfork (foot) and Ty Warren (ankle) will see any action, as they are recovering from some bothersome injuries. But if Belichick holds true to past form, the rest of the Patriots will be on the field if they’re healthy enough to do so. Tom Brady (ribs), Randy Moss (back) and Jerod Mayo (knee) have each dealt with some tough injuries this season, so they’re probably borderline for Sunday’s game in Houston.

In 2005, the Patriots essentially threw in the towel in their regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins in order to avoid the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the playoffs. Brady only played in the first quarter before making way for Matt Cassel, who nearly pulled out an improbable victory. (That was also the game in which Doug Flutie converted the NFL’s first successful drop kick in 64 years.)

In 2006, though, Brady and the starters played for three quarters on their way to a victory in Tennessee. (That, if you remember correctly, was the game in which a 43-year-old Vinny Testaverde threw a touchdown pass to give him at least one scoring strike in 20 consecutive seasons.)

So, if the past is any indication, the starters will be out there Sunday. They’ll want to have a strong showing at practice for the second consecutive week, and as Wilfork said on Wednesday, there’s no need to lighten up and develop any bad habits. While teams like the Indianapolis Colts are letting their feet off the gas in the season’s final weeks, the Patriots have traditionally preferred to go all out to stay sharp for the playoffs.

Projected Starters

Patriots
Offense
Quarterback: Tom Brady
Wide receiver: Randy Moss
Wide receiver: Wes Welker
Running back: Laurence Maroney
Running back: Kevin Faulk
Tight end: Ben Watson
Left tackle: Matt Light
Left guard: Logan Mankins
Center: Dan Koppen
Right guard: Stephen Neal
Right tackle: Nick Kaczur

Defense
Left defensive end: Mike Wright
Defensive tackle: Myron Pryor
Right defensive End: Jarvis Green
Outside linebacker: Tully Banta-Cain
Middle linebacker: Jerod Mayo
Middle linebacker: Gary Guyton
Outside linebacker: Pierre Woods
Left cornerback: Shawn Springs
Right cornerback: Leigh Bodden
Strong safety: Brandon Meriweather
Free safety: James Sanders

Specialists
Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski
Punter: Chris Hanson
Long snapper: Jake Ingram
Holder: Chris Hanson
Kick returner: Matthew Slater
Punt returner: Wes Welker

Texans

Offense
Quarterback: Matt Schaub
Wide receiver: Andre Johnson
Wide receiver: Kevin Walter
Tight end: Joel Dreessen
Running back: Ryan Moats
Fullback: Vonta Leach
Left tackle: Duane Brown
Left guard: Kasey Studdard
Center: Chris Myers
Right guard: Antoine Caldwell
Right tackle: Eric Winston

Defense
Left defensive end: Antonio Smith
Defensive tackle: Amobi Okoye
Defensive tackle: Shaun Cody
Right defensive end: Mario Williams
Weakside linebacker: Zac Diles
Middle linebacker: DeMeco Ryans
Strongside linebacker: Brian Cushing
Cornerback: Glover Quin
Cornerback: Dunta Robinson
Strong safety: Bernard Pollard
Free safety: Dominique Barber

Specialists
Kicker: Kris Brown
Punter: Matt Turk
Long snapper: Bryan Pittman
Holder: Matt Turk
Kick returner: Jacoby Jones
Punt returner: Jacoby Jones

Stat Sheet

Patriots
Twenty-eight players on the Patriots’ 53-man active roster just won their first AFC East title with the team. It was the first division crown of any kind for 19 Patriots.

The Patriots have clinched a playoff spot for the 17th time in their 50-year history by winning their 12th division title. They have gone to the playoffs 11 times in the 16 years since Robert Kraft bought the team in 1994.

The Patriots went undefeated at home for the fourth time in team history. The first three times (2003, 2004, 2007), they advanced to the Super Bowl.

If the Patriots and Bengals finish the regular season with identical records, there are 10 games in Week 17 that will determine the strength-of-victory tiebreaker to determine the third and fourth seeds.

Excluding all stats from Tom Brady’s record-setting season in 2007, the quarterback is on pace to have his best year in completion percentage, passing yards, touchdowns and interception percentage.

In two career games against the Texans, Brady has completed 45 of 70 passes (64.3 percent) for 477 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.

In two career games at Reliant Stadium — in 2003 against the Texans and later that season in the Super Bowl — Brady has completed 61 of 95 passes (64.2 percent) for 722 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions.

Wide receiver Wes Welker has a franchise-record 122 receptions in 2009, and he became the first player in league history to record 110 catches in three consecutive seasons.

Welker needs two receptions to pass Herman Moore for the second-most receptions in a single season in NFL history. Welker would need an NFL single-game record of 22 catches to break Marvin Harrison’s single-season league record.

If Welker catches 10 passes Sunday, he’ll break the single-season record with eight 10-catch games in a season.

Safety Brandon Meriweather has a career-high five interceptions.

Wide receiver Randy Moss has 78 receptions for 1,189 yards and a league-best 13 touchdowns this season.

Linebacker Jerod Mayo leads the team with 105 total tackles and 69 solo tackles despite missing three games with a knee injury.

Linebacker Tully Banta-Cain leads the Patriots with 9.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hits.

Texans
The Texans will clinch their first playoff berth in team history with a win and a loss from two of the following three teams: Baltimore, Denver and New York.

Six of the Texans’ seven losses have been by eight points or less.

Wide receiver Andre Johnson has an NFL-high 1,504 receiving yards, and he is the second player in league history to record 1,500 receiving yards in back-to-back seasons. He needs 72 yards this week to register a new career high, and he could become the first player in more than a decade to lead the league in receiving yards in two consecutive seasons.

Johnson also has 95 receptions and nine touchdowns this season. He has caught at least one pass in 100 of his 101 career games.

Quarterback Matt Schaub has completed 372 of 544 passes for an NFL-best 4,467 yards, 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

Schaub and Johnson are on pace to become the eighth pair of teammates since 1970 to lead the league in passing yards and receiving yards.

Schaub has only been sacked twice in his last 139 pass attempts.

Rookie linebacker Brian Cushing leads all AFC linebackers with 128 tackles and leads all NFL linebackers with four interceptions.

Gary Kubiak is the winningest coach in team history with 30 victories in four seasons.

The Texans are trying to win nine games for the first time in team history. The Patriots, meanwhile, have won at least nine games in a league-best nine consecutive seasons.

If the Texans beat the Patriots, they’d have more wins against the AFC East this season (three) than the Jets (two) and Bills (two).

The Texans have scored a touchdown in 59 consecutive games.

Houston is 6-1 this season when gaining 400 offensive yards.

Defensive end Mario Williams, who was famously taken over Reggie Bush with the first pick in the 2006 draft, has 34 sacks in 47 games since 2007. His 0.74 sacks per game over that span is fourth in the NFL.

Linebacker DeMeco Ryans has a league-high 397 solo tackles in the last four seasons, and he’s second in the league with 511 total tackles during that time.

Black and Blue

(From Thursday’s practice report)

Patriots
Quarterback Tom Brady (right shoulder/finger/rib) had limited participation.
Defensive end Jarvis Green (knee) had limited participation.
Defensive end Ty Warren (ankle) had limited participation.
Wide receiver Wes Welker (not injury related) had limited participation.
Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork (foot) had limited participation.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman (forearm) had full participation.
Tackle Nick Kaczur (shoulder) had full participation.
Cornerback Shawn Springs (knee) had full participation.
Tight end Ben Watson (knee) had full participation.

Texans
Defensive tackle Shaun Cody (knee) did not participate.
Linebacker Brian Cushing (foot/ribs) did not participate.
Tackle Duane Brown (knee) had limited participation.
Tight end Joel Dreesen (shoulder) had full participation.
Wide receiver Jacoby Jones (shoulder) had full participation.

This Date in Patriots History

In 1999, the Patriots fell to the Jaguars 25-10 in the first round of the playoffs. Quarterback Drew Bledsoe had a pin in his broken right index finger and couldn’t play, so he was replaced by Scott Zolak, who completed 21 of 44 passes for 190 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. Jaguars rookie running back Fred Taylor rushed 33 times for 162 yards, and his one touchdown put Jacksonville ahead 12-0 in the second quarter. Patriots rookie running back Robert Edwards had 61 yards from scrimmage, and he scored to cut the lead to 12-7 in the third quarter. Adam Vinatieri’s 27-yard field goal made it 12-10 in the fourth quarter, but the Jaguars scored the final 13 points of the game.

Edwards ripped apart his knee during a football game on the beach at the following Pro Bowl and never played again for the Patriots. It was also the last game in New England for Zolak, who signed with the Jets in the offseason. And finally, it was last NFL playoff game Pete Carroll ever coached. He was fired after the Patriots missed the playoffs in 1999, and he was hired by the University of Southern California in 2001.

The Patriots are 0-2 all-time on this date. They lost to the Steelers 7-6 in the playoffs during the previous season.

Overheard

“I don’t think we owe them anything. We put ourselves in this position, and that was by winning games throughout the year. If they didn’t want to have to count on us to win games, they shouldn’t have lost games. I think we were in the same position last year where we needed a team to lose, and that was no one’s fault but our own. Whenever you’re counting on other teams to win for you, you’re in a bad situation.”
–Patriots left guard Logan Mankins, who was asked if the Patriots should preserve the integrity of the game and go all out Sunday so the Texans wouldn’t have an advantage against other teams trying to make the playoffs.

Press Box

Patriots
The Patriots’ offense finally looks coordinated.

The Patriots have found their typical way.

Here are 81 numbers that define the Patriots’ decade.

Texans
Houston is in an unfamiliar position this week.

Brian Cushing will be a star before long.

The Texans had you fooled.

NFL
The Cowboys used a players' meeting to spark their December turnaround.

The Colts’ curious decision to rest their starters may have long-term effects.

Check out which quarterback could be joining Mike Shanahan in Washington.

Outlook

Since we can’t precisely predict everyone’s playing time on Sunday, let’s just go forward with this section as if the usual suspects will have an impact. First of all, it probably makes more sense for Bill Belichick to employ his main men for active duty. After the Jacksonville game, they spoke at length about their great week of practice and how that led to one of their two best performances of the season. There’s no reason to halt that progression, so it would be a good idea to keep the team practicing at the same level this week, get them ready for a normal game day and throw them on the field so they can continue improving.

Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense should be able to exploit Houston’s defense, which has a few individual standouts but hasn’t put the whole thing together as of yet. The Texans’ faults particularly lie in the secondary, as Houston is ranked 17th in the league in passing yards allowed. While safety Bernard Pollard — remember him? — is playing at a higher level in 2009, it’s never a good sign when a team’s best defensive back was claimed off of waivers early in the season, especially when he was released by the defensively-inept Kansas City Chiefs. Brady had his best passing effort in weeks during the Patriots’ victory against the Jags, and he, Randy Moss and Wes Welker should be able to add to their growing confidence this weekend.

The Texans have a pair of budding superstar linebackers in DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing, who will likely be the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. They’ve also got a high-level edge rusher in Mario Williams, who has a similar body type to that of Carolina’s Julius Peppers. Williams has been dealing with various injuries this season, so he hasn’t been as disruptive as his previous two years, but he is still a force and will be a good test for left tackle Matt Light. The Texans also have a pair of talented defensive tackles in Amobi Okoye and Shaun Cody, although neither is performing up to par, so the Patriots shouldn’t have much difficulty running the ball.

However, Williams and Houston’s linebackers are capable of getting into the backfield, and if that becomes an issue on Sunday, there’s no reason whatsoever to let Brady stay in the game. In the understatement of the millennium, the Patriots need a healthy starting quarterback to have success in the postseason.

New England’s defense will face its biggest test against Houston, which has an explosive passing attack that is led by quarterback Matt Schaub and wide receiver Andre Johnson — considered by many to be the best in the business. The Texans are second in the NFL in passing offense and fifth in total offense despite having a disappointing running game in 2009. New England’s defense has held its opponents to less than 180 passing yards in each of the last three games — thanks in part to the increased role given to cornerback Shawn Springs — so this will be a major show-me game for a defense that hasn’t fared well against great passing offenses.

Think of any glowing adjective you can find to describe a great wide receiver, and it’s been used to describe Johnson. He’s big, fast, powerful, has very good hands and blocks well. The Texans find multiple ways to get him the ball by lining him up all over the field, using formations with stacked receivers and motioning Johnson both out of the backfield and across the line of scrimmage.

The Patriots have done well when they’ve played teams that use one wide receiver as their main target — instead of a tight end or running back — but Johnson is in a class of his own. New England will probably rotate cornerbacks Leigh Bodden, Shawn Springs and Jonathan Wilhite on Johnson to match up physically with him the way they did last week against Mike SimsWalker. If the Patriots experience success — especially considering how motivated the Texans will be in their final chance to earn a playoff berth — then you can feel very optimistic about their defense heading into the postseason.

This game is rare in the sense that it’s likely more important for the Patriots’ starters to play well than it is that they win the game. Belichick made some comments on Wednesdays that made it sound like a fast start is a primary goal for the Patriots. If they reach that objective, the starters might be gone in the first half.

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