Fresh off back-to-back wins over the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens, the New England Patriots will look to continue their climb toward playoff position as they visit the scuffling Houston Texans on Sunday.
Time: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
Location: NRG Stadium, Houston
The initial lines, released before New England’s Sunday night win over the Baltimore Ravens, had the 2-7 Texans as either 2 1/2- or three-point home favorites. That’s since flipped.
The 4-5 Patriots now are favored by two points against a Houston team they’ve faced six times in the last five seasons. The Texans upset a flu-riddled Pats team 28-22 last December to snap an eight-game losing streak in this series.
These teams’ against-the-spread records this season match their actual records: 4-5 for the Patriots and 2-7 for the Texans.
The Patriots upset the Ravens in a rainstorm as seven-point home ‘dogs, winning 23-17 on “Sunday Night Football.”
New England dominated the line of scrimmage against an injury-depleted Baltimore squad, rushing for 173 yards — including 121 by emerging star Damien Harris — while holding the Ravens’ top-ranked, Lamar Jackson-led ground game to 115 yards.
Cam Newton was efficient (13-for-17, 118 yards, one passing touchdown, one rushing touchdown, no turnovers); Jakobi Meyers led all Patriots receivers and threw a touchdown pass; Rex Burkhead averaged 6.6 yards per touch and caught two scores; and the defense got key contributions from young players like Kyle Dugger and Chase Winovich.
The Texans slogged through a 10-7 loss to the Browns, allowing 230 rushing yards to Cleveland’s dangerous backfield duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
Houston failed to score on fourth-and-goal from the 2 during the first half and later missed a field goal, but Chubb also chose not to score a late touchdown that would have padded the Browns’ lead.
Both of the Texans’ wins this season have come against the 1-8 Jacksonville Jaguars. They fired head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien last month and currently are under the director of another former Patriots assistant, interim head coach Romeo Crennel.
A total of 15 Patriots players are listed as questionable for Sunday’s game, including wide receiver N’Keal Harry, who was added to the injury report Friday:
LB Ja’Whaun Bentley (groin)
DT Adam Butler (shoulder)
K Nick Folk (back)
CB Stephon Gilmore (knee)
DT Lawrence Guy (shoulder, elbow and knee)
LB Terez Hall (shoulder)
RB Damien Harris (ankle, chest)
WR N’Keal Harry (shoulder)
TE Ryan Izzo (hamstring, hand)
G Shaq Mason (calf)
DE John Simon (elbow)
WR Matthew Slater (knee)
G Joe Thuney (ankle)
DE Deatrich Wise (knee, hand)
OT Isaiah Wynn (ankle)
Bentley has sat out the last two games. Gilmore has missed the last three.
It remains to be seen whether running back Sony Michel, who returned to practice two weeks ago, will be activated off injured reserve before Sunday. (UPDATE: Michel reportedly will be activated.)
The Texans ruled out safety Michael Thomas and listed the following seven players as questionable:
P Bryan Anger (right quad)
FB Cullen Gillaspia (back)
G Senio Kelemete (concussion)
OLB Jacob Martin (not injury related)
DE Charles Omenihu (hamstring)
WR Kenny Stills (back)
T Laremy Tunsil (illness)
Houston will be without top running back David Johnson, who is on IR.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Damien Harris, Patriots running back
Harris has been excellent since supplanting the injured Michel as New England’s lead back, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and reaching 100 yards in three of his six games.
And the numbers suggest he’s in for another banner day. Houston’s defense ranks dead last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, yards allowed per carry and Football Outsiders’ run defense DVOA.
The biggest question with Harris is whether Michel’s potential return will eat into his usage rate.
Deshaun Watson, Texans quarterback
Watson enjoyed one of his best games as a pro when these teams met last season, completing 72 percent of his passes for 234 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. His 140.7 passer rating was the third-best mark of his career.
Watson also caught a touchdown pass in that game, and though he wasn’t a factor in the run game — he finished with negative rushing yards for the first and only time in his career — he has burned the Patriots with his legs in the past, averaging more than 5 yards per carry against New England in 2017 and 2018.
The Patriots are in the midst of a string of matchups against top-tier dual-threat QBs, with Watson following Jackson and preceding Arizona’s Kyler Murray.
“He definitely creates just as big of a threat that we had last week,” said veteran safety Devin McCourty, who praised Watson’s lower-body strength. “Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson — we’ll see some of those same things Sunday.”
Kyle Dugger, Patriots safety
One of the Patriots’ most important weapons against Jackson was Dugger, who made his first NFL start last week and played nearly every defensive snap. New England’s top 2020 draft pick registered a game-high 12 tackles in the win — including a few key stops down the stretch — and was the defender primarily responsible for covering star tight end Mark Andrews on third downs.
“He’s a baller, man,” fellow safety Adrian Phillips said after the game, “and it was good to see him be able to go out there and put it on the field and show to the world that he’s here. I like that a lot.”
The Patriots’ game-plan defense evolves from week to week, so Dugger might not see quite as much playing time this Sunday. But his size, athleticism and ability to play multiple positions could make him a valuable tool against the slippery Watson.
Will Fuller, Texans wide receiver
Outside of Watson, the strength of the Texans’ roster is at wideout, with Fuller leading a deep and speed-rich group that also features Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb and Kenny Stills.
Fuller didn’t do much against Cleveland last week (five catches, 38 yards) but caught a touchdown pass in each of his previous six games, posting a 28-478-6 line during that span. He also ranks highly in several advanced metrics, placing second in Football Outsiders’ DYAR behind Justin Jefferson and third in DVOA behind Jefferson and Julio Jones.
Cooks, the former Patriot, has put up solid numbers this season, too, catching 43 passes for 549 yards and three touchdowns after posting a 42-583-2 line in 14 games for the Los Angeles Rams in 2019.
Getting Gilmore back would help against this talented collection of receivers. The Texans have gotten little help from their ground game this season (31st in rushing yards per game, 36th in yards per carry) and currently are Johnson, their leading rusher. Duke Johnson, a third-down back for most of his career, currently is Houston’s top ball-carrier.
Jordan Thomas, Patriots tight end
Thomas, who started his career with the Texans, should make his Patriots debut this weekend after being claimed off waivers from the Arizona Cardinals two weeks ago. The big-bodied third-year-pro will provide some needed depth behind Izzo, who has been New England’s only available tight end for the last three games.
We also could see Isaiah Ford take his first snaps in a New England uniform. The recently acquired wide receiver dressed but did not play last Sunday.
J.J. Watt, Texans defensive end
Standout Patriots rookie Mike Onwenu will face one of his toughest tests yet in Watt, the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Watt, who leads the Texans in sacks, quarterback hits and tackles for loss, primarily rushes from the defensive left side, meaning he’ll see a lot of Onwenu, who’s started the last four games at right tackle.
“I think honestly the experience that J.J. has is very valuable for him,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Friday. “… And going up against a player who doesn’t have as much as J.J. does and hasn’t played against him, I think you really have to be mindful of the tricks that J.J. has up his sleeve. He doesn’t do the same thing every time. He does a good job of taking advantage of opportunities or changing his techniques based on the situation. He’s a tough guy to play against.”
The Patriots traditionally have done a nice job of neutralizing Watt, holding him to just one half-sack in seven career meetings, including playoffs. He does have 13 QB hits in those games, however.