Once again, the 8-2, first place Patriots will endure talk of a dreaded trap game as they prepare to head to Houston to take on the 4-6 Texans Sunday at Reliant Stadium. Coming off a tough, hard-fought win over the NFC East leading Cowboys and with a huge conference clash with the AFC South leading Colts on the horizon, the Patriots will have to work diligently to maintain their focus, but Bill Belichick will be sure to remind his team of the Texans wins in Buffalo and Miami -- two places the Patriots have had their problems over the years. He may also remind it that one of the losses suffered by 8-2 Carolina came in Houston and that the Patriots two losses -- at Buffalo and at Washington -- came to teams that currently share the Texans 4-6 record.
Realistically, there is no reason to think the Patriots will suffer a letdown and that's not to say they can't lose to a Texans team that will be looking for something on which to build over the last six weeks of the season. But this Patriots team, with strong veteran leadership, has sincerely adopted the one-week-at-a-time approach and doesn't just pay that cliché lip service. So if the Patriots lose in Houston, it will likely be because of turnovers, not a lack of effort.
"Houston is a good team," Belichick stressed. "They beat Carolina when Carolina was 6-1. They're 2-1 against our division and they could've beaten the Jets. They're physical, tough and they're a very disciplined football team. They're two games out of the playoffs."
All things being equal, however, it's a game the Patriots should win, even on the road where they are 3-2 so far this year. They are the better team and at a time of year when the good teams start playing their best football, it's difficult to believe the Patriots won't be ready to go.
However, as the Panthers found out and most recently the Chiefs discovered in Cincinnati, not all things are equal every Sunday. A fumble here, interception there and a blown assignment or two mixed in and the Patriots could easily face a long flight home wondering how they let one get away just as they did after their last loss when they left Washington wishing they could somehow get their four turnovers back.
As with every team, turnovers have been the Patriots undoing this season and are something they can ill afford in Houston where if the door is left open, the home team will kick it in. New England is 7-0 this year when it has a positive turnover ratio and 1-2 when it's negative. Seven of Tom Brady's eight interceptions came in the Patriots two losses.
So while the Patriots have done a terrific job protecting the football most of the season and are tied for second in the AFC with a plus-9 turnover ratio, they must continue that trend to earn their fourth road win of the season. That topic will be emphasized during the week since Houston is plus-5 in its four wins and minus-7 in its six losses.
Despite the Patriots resistance to so-called trap games, Belichick's task this week in preparing his team will still be to make sure his club doesn't look at Houston as a reprieve on what's been a difficult schedule.
Seemingly every week, Belichick has stood in front of his team in its Wednesday full-squad meeting and raved about the opponents' accolades and he's had plenty of evidence to support his claims. He doesn't have that ammunition this week except to remind his players of who Houston has beaten.
During its current six-game winning streak, New England has faced four of the NFL's top six defenses in Tennessee (5th), Cleveland (6th), Denver (2nd) and Dallas (1st) and is 4-0 in those games, but they will face a Texans unit ranked 31st, allowing 371 yards per game, including a heinous 142 on the ground. The Texans also are one of the lower echelon red zone defenses, allowing touchdowns on 56 percent of trips inside their 20-yard line. The Patriots rank fourth in red zone defense and have faced five of the other top seven in Miami (1st), Cleveland (2nd), Denver (3rd), Tennessee (6th) and Dallas (8th).
"The veteran leadership in this locker room has proven that we don't care who we play," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "Whether you're an upper-tier team or any-tier team, we're going to give you the respect you deserve because Houston has beaten some good clubs and that's all we need to know."
So have the Patriots, but their offense has struggled with consistency and isn't exactly a model of health with a banged up receiving corps causing concern. So that unit will be looking at the game as an opportunity to get back on track after scoring less than 20 points in four of its last five games.
"We're finding ways to win," Woody said. "We're playing pretty good defense and our offense isn't turning the ball over. Turnovers are the determining factor in this league and we are holding on to the ball."
Houston's strength is on the offensive side where it will try to outwit and out-perform what has become a stingy Patriots defense that allows just 15.5 points per game off its 12-0 shutout of Dallas. The Texans will be playing without starting quarterback David Carr and will start Tony Banks, who while inconsistent through his career, is capable of a strong effort and actually has solid numbers, having completed 43-of-63 passes for 500 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
If the Patriots play defense the way they have for much of the season and take care of the football on offense, they should return at 9-2 and ready for a big game at Indianapolis.
SERIES HISTORY: 1st meeting. The Patriots have never played the Texans, but are 15-15 all-time when playing a team for the first time and are 4-1 in first meetings with expansion teams since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.