When the Patriots Run: Typically when we start dissecting a matchup, we go to the overall offensive and defensive numbers. The problem is, the Patriots are so banged up right now that you are forced to ignore the first ten games and just look at the last two. Gronkowski and Edelman aren't going to be on the field, and that changes things dramtically. As far as the running game, it has been a struggle for New England. They haven't stuck with it consistently and when they do try to get it going, they get shut down. The Texans boast the seventh ranked defense in the NFL, 12th against the run with 114.1 yards allowed per game. With the issues the Patriots have in pass blocking and wide receivers getting separation, it is clear that they are going to have to commit to the run and truly grind this game out. LeGarrette Blount is going to get a lot of carries, as is James White, and if the offensive line can gain some continuity as they are finally healthy, New England might be able to run for over 125 yards.
When the Patriots Pass: New England's passing game isn't the same right now, featuring Scott Chandler and Brandon LaFell instead of Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. LaFell was in integral part of the offense in 2014, but he's struggled with drops since he came off the PUP list and he hasn't helped in this time of need. Danny Amendola played well in his return vs. the Eagles, and Brady will be looking to him more than any other receiver. New England has averaged 293 yards through the air over the last two outings, and the yards they've earned have been tough. Houston is ranked third against the pass as far as yardage, but they've also allowed 20 touchdown passes. The key is going to be stopping J.J. Watt; if the Patriots can't block him, there is a good chance we see a third loss in a row for New England. For the first time this season, I'm going to have to give the edge to Houston because the injured players are just impossible to replace.
When the Texans Run: The Texans are currently ranked 19th in rushing, averaging 100.1 yards per game but just 3.5 yards per carry. Arian Foster is out, so the Texans will feature Alfred Blue, a back that has done well when given the opportunity to play regularly. Houston has only rushed for five touchdowns, one of the lowest totals in the league, so it is pretty clear that their running game is not what it once was and can not dictate the game like they did when Gary Kubiak was the coach. The main problem the Texans have is a lack of explosiveness and big plays; the longest run they've had all year is 21 yards and they've had a total of three carries go for 20 yards or more, which is tied with the New York Giants for last in the league. New England's run defense has dropped to 11th over the last two weeks, but they are still allowing just 99 yards rushing per game and Jamie Collins is back, his second game since returning. The Patriots have the advantage in this area, and if Dont'a Hightower plays too, the Texans will be lucky to run for more than 75 yards.
When the Texans Pass: Although they've had issues at the quarterback position, the Texans are still ranked 11th in passing offense and now that Brian Hoyer is the man, Houston is getting better every week. It doesn't hurt that DeAndre Hopkins, maybe the best wide receiver in football this season, is catching passes for Hoyer. Malcolm Butler will most likely be matched up man-to-man with Hopkins all night and he'll have his hands full, but as we've seen all year, he plays with no fear and he forgets about mistakes immediately. Houston has the same issue with the passing game that they do with the running game- not enough explosiveness or big plays. If they didn't have Hopkins, they'd be thge worst passing attack in the league, so expect to see the Patriots go man-to-man and use Devin McCourty as over the top help. If you stop Hopkins, you stop the Texans passing game. I'm confident the Patriots defense will get that job done.
Special Teams: Typically I sit on my soapbox and tell everyone how great the Patriots special teams are, but those days are over. In the last two weeks, the punt team has been AWFUL, fumbling in the fourth quarter vs. Denver last week, allowing a punt block/touchdown return and then to top it off- a punt return by Darren Sproles. Three game-swinging plays that are the main reason New England is 10-2 and not 12-0. Houston, special teams-wise, is the worst team in football according to Football Outsiders. So we have the worst special teams unit in football vs. what was once the best but it struggling; New England still has the edge, but after blowing two games in a row, they've lost the benefit of the doubt, at least in my mind.
Bill Belichick vs. Bill O'Brien, a battle that should be very interesting to watch. O'Brien is familiar with the Patriots coaches and personnel, but that really doesn't mean a lot once the game starts. Belichick knows how O'Brien ticks, but does that give him any advantage? In the past, I've always thought knowing the opponent helps, but the truth is, the players have to execute. Belichick typically gets his players to execute better than anyone, but offensively they're dealing with issues. The Texans defense has been playing well, but the offense isn't explosive at all and that will be a problem for O'Brien and the Texans Sunday night. I give Belichick the edge like usual, but if he has the braincramps that he had last week, O'Brien will outcoach him and most likely win the game.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Texans 13
The Patriots offense is a bit of a mess, but they've had two weeks to get used to the new personnel and they were able to put up points against an excellent defense in Denver, so Houston shouldn't scare them too much. The Texans are going to have to deal with a Patriots defense that has played well in 2015; expect to see multiple players assigned to DeAndre Hopkins, and assuming they have success dealing with Hopkins and Watt, the Patriots should be able to pick up a win.
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