In a matchup between unusually familiar non-division foes, the New England Patriots will host the Houston Texans on Sunday afternoon for the fourth time (including pre- and postseason) since last September.
Here’s a look at how the two teams stack up:
Running back Rex Burkhead (ribs) has been ruled out for this game, and 11 other Patriots players are listed as questionable, including starting right tackle Marcus Cannon (ankle/concussion) and four skill players on offense. Tight end Rob Gronkowski (groin) and wide receiver Danny Amendola (concussion/knee) both declared themselves “good to go” for Sunday, and wide receivers Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan downplayed the severity of their respective knee injuries.
Over on the other side, the Texans will be without starting cornerback Kevin Johnson, No. 2 receiver Will Fuller and starting right guard Jeff Allen. Wideout Bruce Ellington and tight ends Ryan Griffin and Stephen Anderson have been cleared to play after missing last week’s game with concussions.
Houston also will be missing starting left tackle Duane Brown, who has yet to end his contract holdout.
PATRIOTS’ OFFENSE VS. TEXANS’ DEFENSE
In order for the Texans to pull off the upset, they’ll need to follow the blueprint they set in last year’s divisional round. That means pressuring the heck out of quarterback Tom Brady with their crew of talented pass rushers, led by a now-healthy J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus.
Houston generated considerable pressure through the interior in that playoff matchup, and they could have success attacking from the defensive left side in this one if Cannon, who has fared well against Watt in the past, is unable to play. Cannon was the Patriots’ best offensive lineman last season, and the dropoff from him to either Cameron Fleming or LaAdrian Waddle is steep, to say the least.
If the O-line can keep Brady upright, he should pick apart a banged-up Texans secondary, especially since he should have most of his weapons back for this game. This could be a breakout game for receiver Brandin Cooks, who’s played well but has not put up monster numbers thus far in his Patriots career.
Running back Dion Lewis, who scored three touchdowns against Houston in January, could see a larger role on offense this week with Burkhead sidelined. He’s played just 20 offensive snaps through two games.
PATRIOTS’ DEFENSE VS. TEXANS’ OFFENSE
The blueprint for the Pats’ D this week is simple: Keep Deshaun Watson in the pocket and cover DeAndre Hopkins.
Watson, the 12th overall pick in this year’s draft, still is a work in progress as a passer, but he’s already a threat to make plays with his legs, as evidenced by his 49-yard touchdown run against the Cincinnati Bengals last week. If the Patriots can limit the rookie’s scrambling opportunities and make him beat them with his arm, they’ll have a decided advantage.
Hopkins has seen more targets than anyone else in the NFL this season (29 in two games), partially because he’s an elite receiver and partially because he’s all the Texans have. With Fuller yet to make his season debut as he recovers from a broken collarbone, Houston wideouts other than Hopkins have caught a grand total of two passes on four targets. Hopkins has caught 14, including 13 from Watson, who’s completed 27 passes total through his first six quarters of NFL action.
The expected return of Griffin and Anderson should help somewhat, and Lamar Miller is a capable pass-catching back. Still, expect to see a lot of double coverage on Hopkins, possibly from cornerback Stephon Gilmore with a safety over the top.
An X-factor in this game for the Texans could be rookie running back D’Onta Foreman, who rushed for a touchdown and ripped off a 63-yard catch-and-run in the teams’ preseason meeting last month. Foreman saw his role increase last week and eventually could overtake Miller as Houston’s lead back.
Oh, and we also should mention that Houston’s offensive line has been absolutely horrendous this season. The Texans have surrendered an NFL-high 13 sacks — 10 of which came in a Week 1 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars — and Pro Football Focus has them ranked dead last in the league in pass blocking efficiency by a wide margin.
Tackles Breno Giacomini (29.8 out of 100) and Chris Clark (35.2) and guards Xavier Su’a-Filo (34.3) and Greg Mancz (39.3) all rank among the worst in their position groups in PFF’s individual grading metric, with center Nick Martin far outpacing his teammates with a respectable grade of 71.2.
Thumbnail photo via David Butler III/USA TODAY Sports Images