The New England Patriots will head to Houston this weekend to battle one of their most frequent non-division foes on “Sunday Night Football.”
Here’s what to watch for as the Patriots take on the Texans for the sixth time in the last five seasons:
Time: Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET
Location: NRG Stadium, Houston
The Patriots took down the Dallas Cowboys 13-9 in a driving rainstorm to improve to 10-1 on the season and remain atop the AFC standings. It was the third time the Patriots have won this season without scoring 20 points, their most such victories since 2003.
The Texans rebounded from a 41-7 butt-kicking at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens to dispatch the division rival Indianapolis Colts 20-17 last Thursday night. Houston currently holds the AFC’s No. 3 seed at 7-4.
The Patriots entered the weekend as 3 1/2-point road favorites over the Texans, who are 4-1 at home this season. New England is 5-1 away from Gillette Stadium.
The Texans are 1-10 all-time against the Patriots and 0-5 during Bill O’Brien’s head-coaching tenure, but they came close in 2017 and 2018, dropping a 36-33 thriller in quarterback Deshaun Watson’s second NFL start and losing 27-20 last season in Watson’s return from a torn ACL.
This will be New England’s first visit to Houston since 2015. The Patriots are 7-4 against the spread this season. The Texans are 5-6 ATS.
A flu bug hammered the Patriots’ locker room this week, causing six starters and nine players overall to miss practice. One of those players, third-string tight end Ryan Izzo, has been ruled out for Sunday’s game, and the rest are among the 17 Patriots players officially listed as questionable — by far the highest number for any game this season.
TE Ryan Izzo, Illness
LB Ja’Whaun Bentley, Knee
OT Marcus Cannon, Illness
S Patrick Chung, Illness/Heel/Chest
LB Jamie Collins, Illness
DL Byron Cowart, Head
WR Phillip Dorsett, Concussion
S Nate Ebner, Ankle/Back
WR Julian Edelman, Shoulder
OL Jermaine Eluemunor, Illness
CB Stephon Gilmore, Illness
LB Dont’a Hightower, Illness
CB Jason McCourty, Groin
WR Mohamed Sanu, Ankle
WR Matthew Slater, Hamstring
LB Kyle Van Noy, Illness
CB Joejuan Williams, Illness
OT Isaiah Wynn, Illness
Izzo missed all three practices this week. Hightower, Wynn, and Williams missed two. Gilmore, Van Noy, Chung, Collins and Eluemunor missed one.
Dorsett, Sanu and McCourty were limited participants in all three sessions after sitting out last Sunday’s game. Having them back would be a big boost for the Patriots’ receiving corps and secondary.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Tom Brady, Patriots quarterback
Assuming Sanu, Dorsett and Wynn are good to go, this should be the week New England’s offense rediscovers its mojo after scoring 20, 17 and 13 points in its last three games.
The Texans, who traded away Jadeveon Clowney this summer and then lost J.J. Watt to injured reserve, have not been a good team defensively this season, ranking 17th in points allowed, 20th in total defense and 26th in defense DVOA. And they’ve been especially bad in key situations, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 65.6 percent of their red-zone visits (worst in the NFL) and convert 47.1 percent of their third downs (second-worst).
Brady, who was better than his numbers suggested against the Cowboys, has enjoyed great success against old friend Romeo Crennel’s defense in the past, posting a passer rating above 100 in each of his last five regular-season meetings with Houston. He threw 16 touchdown passes in those games with just two interceptions.
DeAndre Hopkins, Texans wide receiver
Houston’s roster has experienced significant turnover since the last time these teams met in the 2018 season opener — just 24 players from that game currently are active for the Texans — but its two offensive pillars remain. That would be the dynamic Watson, who ranks in the top 10 in most prominent passing categories, and Hopkins, whom Bill Belichick called “elite-elite” this week.
“I think he defines an NFL receiver,” Belichick said. “If you open ‘NFL receiver’ in the dictionary, put his picture next to it. He gets open, he catches the ball. Doesn’t matter what the route is, doesn’t matter what the coverage is, doesn’t matter where the ball’s thrown or what the situation — first-and-10, fourth-and-goal — he’s very, very productive.”
Only Michael Thomas has caught more passes than Hopkins’ 81 this season, and while the longtime Texans star never has torched the Patriots’ secondary, he tends to post respectable numbers against New England, averaging seven catches and 73 yards per game over the last three meetings.
As long as he’s healthy enough to play, expect to see Gilmore, who shut out Amari Cooper last week, shadowing Hopkins throughout this ballgame.
Kai Forbath, Patriots kicker
For 23 years, from 1996 to 2018, just three players kicked in a regular-season game for the Patriots: Adam Vinatieri, Stephen Gostkowski and Shayne Graham. Forbath will be their fourth kicker this season. New England signed the 32-year-old free agent after Nick Folk — who replaced Mike Nugent, who replaced Gostkowski — underwent an emergency appendectomy on Thanksgiving morning.
Forbath worked out for the Patriots earlier this season and has plenty of NFL experience, but he appeared in just three games in 2018 and had been out of a job since the Jacksonville Jaguars cut him loose in February. It would be surprising if New England attempts any field goals beyond 40 yards in his debut.
Carlos Hyde, Texans running back
Hyde was dumped by the Cleveland Browns midway through last season, then couldn’t even crack 200 rushing yards over his eight games with the Jacksonville Jaguars. But ever since Houston traded for the 28-year-old after Lamar Miller tore his ACL in the preseason, he’s been one of the NFL’s more productive ball carriers.
Eleven games in, Hyde is on pace to set career highs in carries, rushing yards and yards per rush. He ranks 11th or better in the NFL in all three categories, forming a potent backfield trio with third-down back Duke Johnson and Watson, one of the league’s most mobile quarterbacks.
The Patriots’ defense has been dominant against the pass this season but less so against the run, ranking 23rd in yards allowed per carry. This hasn’t been a major flaw, however, as the unit still ranks ninth in both rushing yards allowed per game and run defense DVOA.
John Simon, Patriots linebacker
Simon, a former Texan and the least-heralded member of New England’s Boogeyman linebacking corps, quietly has been a valuable asset for the Patriots’ top-ranked defense this season. Given Watson’s aforementioned scrambling ability, keeping Houston’s QB in the pocket will be a priority for the Patriots this week, and Simon could play a key role in that effort, especially if Van Noy, who didn’t practice Friday, can’t go.
Simon fared better than most Patriots edge defenders against Lamar Jackson in the team’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens four weeks ago. Belichick praised the 29-year-old Friday, saying the scope of his responsibilities seems to expand each week.
“(He’s) played a lot of different roles for us defensively,” the coach said, “and those roles have expanded this year quite a bit — I’d say maybe a little bit surprisingly, because it looked like he had quite a few roles last year.”