There aren’t many people outside of the Houston Texans’ locker room who think Houston can beat the New England Patriots this week in their AFC divisional-round matchup at Gillette Stadium.
And would you really be surprised even if folks inside Houston’s facility had some doubts?
The Patriots are the consensus pick to roll to the AFC Championship Game without breaking a sweat in Saturday night’s game, and with three of every four against-the-spread bets coming in on New England to cover a ridiculous 15-point spread, the majority opinion is that it will be a laugher.
The Texans haven’t proved in recent years they can hang with the Patriots, let alone beat them. New England has outscored the Texans 54-6 in two games since Bill O’Brien took over as Texans head coach, and Houston has just one win in eight all-time matchups with the Patriots.
Is there any way Houston can at least give the Patriots a game? Sure, but it won’t be easy.
The No. 1 priority the Texans should have Saturday night is taking care of the football. Houston turned the ball over 14 times in its seven losses, compared to just 10 turnovers in its 10 wins so far, including last week’s wild-card game win over Oakland. Obviously, you’re more likely to win games in which you don’t turn over the football, but that’s especially true against the Patriots, who ranked fourth in points off turnovers and led the league in net turnover points. No one takes care of the ball better and takes advantage of its opponent’s mistakes better than New England.
“If you are going to beat the Patriots, especially in Foxborough, you can’t have any turnovers,” Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler told reporters this week, via the Houston Chronicle. “If you have turnovers, you’re giving Tom (Brady) additional chances to score points. Sometimes on a short field, and that’s never going to be good for your team.”
Osweiler probably won’t win the game for the Texans, but he has to avoid losing it for them. He’s yet to throw an interception in two games since re-assuming the QB1 role from backup Tom Savage, and he must do the same Saturday if Houston wants any chance to win.
The Texans also must get off to a good start. At the very least, they have to make sure the Patriots don’t get off to a fast start. Houston’s offense averaged just 17.4 points per game this season, the fifth-worst mark in the NFL. They simply can’t afford to fall behind early, because it’s going to be virtually impossible for them to erase a double-digit lead.
“Any time you play in Foxboro and you’re playing against Tom Brady, he’s going to find ways to score points,” Osweiler said, also according to the Houston Chronicle. “He’s going to try and find a way to start the game fast.
“Whether they score the first touchdown or even the first two touchdowns, one thing I learned watching Peyton (Manning) play a couple of times against Tom, you have to stay patient and believe in your game plan for the full 60 minutes.”
Of course, the Texans’ offensive deficiencies are far from the only thing standing in the way of an upset. Having to slow Brady and the Patriots’ offense — even for a team like Houston that ranked third in the NFL in yards per play allowed this season — is another tall task by itself.
New England’s offensive balance allowed the team to go run-heavy in a Week 3, 27-0 win over Houston, rushing the ball for a season-high 185 yards with third-string rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett under center.
It shouldn’t come as much surprise that Texans defensive tackle Vince Wilfork labeled the Patriots’ stable of running backs as “very, very, very explosive” and “very dynamic” earlier this week.
Houston has bounced back, however, allowing just 4.0 yards per rush for the season, a mark that finished just outside the NFL’s top 10. That’s due in large part to allowing just 68 rushing yards per game over the last 10 games.
“We’ve been a difficult defense to run on. Now, it’s a whole different challenge,” head coach Bill O’Brien told reporters. “This is a whole different challenge. You’ve got a really good offensive line. You’ve got an excellent scheme that goes fast and changes personnel groups. Lot of different backs that they use.”
Oh, and it’s probably worth mentioning Houston also has to deal with Brady, who’s helped the Patriots win 11 of 12 games since his return from suspension, throwing 28 touchdowns to just one interception.
Technically, there are a few things the Texans can do to keep this game close, but it’s going to take the perfect game plan and near-perfect execution.
And even that might not be enough.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports Images