|Arian Foster will be expecting a big performance against the Patriots|
Along with an 11-1 record, the Houston Texans bring a superstar running-back, Arian Foster, a historically good wide receiver, Andre Johnson, a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback, Matt Schaub, the best left tackle in the NFL, Duane Brown, the best defensive end in the NFL, JJ Watt, and a top-ranked defense to Foxboro for Monday Night Football. So in other words, the Houston Texans are bringing a lot with them to face the New England Patriots.
Despite locking up their playoff spot last week, the Patriots will be desperate to beat their AFC counterparts for multiple reasons. The first is obvious, the Texans are the Patriots' main rivals for home-field advantage and are currently leading them by two victories on the season. If they can win this game they will put pressure on the AFC South side to continue to win throughout the rest of the season or face the prospect of playing a playoff game in Foxboro later this year. Furthermore, outside of the Colts, the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, otherwise known as the teams competing for the AFC North division crown, all lost. That gives the Patriots an opportunity to put a stranglehold on a first round bye with victory over the Texans.
It's not solely logistical reasons that will motivate the Patriots however. Having waltzed through the AFC East with relative ease, victory over the Texans would be somewhat of a staple for them to hang their regular season results on. It would lay down a marker for their opposition, while giving the Patriots a good base to build even greater momentum off of. In order to do that, the Patriots will need to have play 60 minutes of competitive, productive and focused football. On both sides of the football the Texans are exceptionally well coached and run expertly executed schemes that are almost impossible to decipher.
That makes for a tantalizing matchup between Tom Brady and Wade Philips. Brady's greatest strength is his ability to decipher a defense prior to the snap and that strength is made even greater when he is able to dictate the opposing team's play calling with his superior offensive pieces. However, without Rob Gronkowski on the field, Brady won't have that benefit. Without Gronkowski, Philips' defense will be able to run whatever complex defenses they desire and try to confuse Brady with different plays coming from different looks.
Not having Gronkowski could be the deciding factor in this game because the Texans are relatively healthy with many outstanding game-changers who can dramatically affect every single play. Brady will fear nobody more than he does JJ Watt. As a 3-4 defensive end, it is very rare for even the most talented of players to get national recognition. That makes it even less likely for them to be considered for defensive player of the year awards or even All-Pro consideration. Yet, Watt's season has even seen some people consider him for the league MVP, you know, that award that is exclusively kept for quarterbacks.
Watt isn't only a great, great player, but he is also the exact type of player that Brady won't want to face. Brady has never been good at dealing with pressure, while he has shown the ability to avoid edge rushers throughout his career. He seemingly has never adjusted to avoiding the rush up the middle however. When pushed out of the pocket or forced to throw off his back foot, Brady has proven incapable of making big plays or even at times completing a simple pass. It's an issue for most quarterbacks, but it's kryptonite for the Patriots' Superman.
Against Watt, Brady will be lucky to just be throwing off his back foot instead of grasping for the ball on the flat of his back. Watt has an unprecedented 16.5 sacks and 15 deflected passes, which could cause major problems for the Patriots' short passing game. Even if they subdue Watt, dealing with the edge rushers from the Texans is no easy task either. Brooks Reed won't play, but Connor Barwin remains a fearsome edge rusher across from him, while first round draft pick Whitney Mercilus has five sacks in a reserved role as a rookie. Mercilus will step into Reed's starting spot and primarily line up across from Sebastien Vollmer, who struggled last week.
Running on the Texans will be very tough, and while they should have some success passing over the middle, nothing will come easy for the Patriots no matter what they do against this defense. Stanford Routt, Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph will be on the field a lot against the Patriots receivers, while Danieal Manning and Glover Quinn are no slouches at safety either. There is potential for turnovers all over this defense, while the physicality of the players no matter the position will provide a stern mental test for the Patriots on offense.
Defensively, the Patriots actually matchup well to the Texans in some ways, but have certain soft spots that could be exposed. The Patriots expect to get Chandler Jones back to play defensive end, but he will have a very tough matchup against Duane Brown. Instead of chasing down the passer, Jones will need to concentrate on containing Arian Foster's cutback attempts in the running game. Foster has taken over games with his ability in the past against better, more experienced defenses. The key to stopping Foster is penetration. Vince Wilfork will need to have a big game as he tries to take away those running lanes against the Texans' zone-blocking scheme, but it is very much a team effort when faced with a team this good at running the ball.
Just as important as containing Foster, is recognizing the pass plays and instantly diagnosing play-action. The Texans are devastating when they throw off of play-action because their execution looks exactly the same on every single snap. More than any other quarterback in the league, Matt Schaub gets to throw to wide open tight ends in the flat who can run down the field for big plays. Furthermore, with youngsters Lestar Jean and Keshawn Martin coming on at this time of the year, the Texans also have big threat receivers with the potential to expose any cracks in the Patriots' coverage. Jean and Martin, along with Kevin Walter, will be hoping to benefit from the coverage that Andre Johnson will inevitably draw.
The Patriots traded for Aqib Talib for this kind of matchup, as he possesses the physicality that the team's other cornerbacks do not. While Talib has the physicality to play Johnson aggressively, he doesn't have the talent to take him out of the game on his own. That should see the Patriots send two defenders Johnson's way whenever they possibly can, but that won't be often if the Texans are able to establish the running game as they so often do.
It likely won't be a game where the Patriots can limit the number of points the Texans score, as they do rank second in the NFL in scoring offense, but the potential for turnovers will be there if they can contain Foster without over-committing to him. The Texans offense does revolve around the ability of Foster to set the tone and make big plays. Of course, if Foster is having an off day, his backup Ben Tate is just as dangerous.
Winning games like this one is never easy, but victories are supposed to be earned at this time of the year. The playoffs are coming. This is your walkthrough.
New England Patriots
TE Rob Gronkowski (forearm, hip)
TE Aaron Hernandez (ankle)
DE Chandler Jones (ankle)
WR Wes Welker (ankle)
WR Brandon Lloyd (knee)
LG Logan Mankins (ankle, calf)
SLB Dont’a Hightower (hamstring)
RG Dan Connolly (back)
SS Patrick Chung (shoulder, hamstring)
OL Nick McDonald (shoulder)
RT Sebastian Vollmer (back, knee)
LB Brandon Spikes (knee, ankle)
DT Kyle Love (knee)
DT Ron Brace (elbow)
LB Jerod Mayo (elbow)
OLB Brooks Reed (groin)
OT Derek Newton (knee)
CB Alan Ball (foot)
TE Garrett Graham (concussion)
LT Duane Brown (back)
CB Jonathan Joseph (hamstring, groin)
DE Antonio Smith (ankle)
OG Wade Smith (knee, ribs)
RB Ben Tate (hamstring)
QB T.J. Yates (right elbow)
ILB Tim Dobbins (shoulder)
ILB Bradie James (hamstring)
NT Shaun Cody (ribs, back)
OLB Whitney Mercilus (hip)
TE Owen Daniels (back)
WR DeVier Posey (knee, hamstring)
DE Jared Crick (neck)
ILB Darryl Sharpton (toe)
OG Antonio Caldwell (hamstring)
OLB Jesse Nading (foot)
OLB Bryan Braman (neck)
WR Lestar Jean (knee)