The 8-2 New England Patriots head to Houston to take on the upstart 4-6 Texans. But don't let the Texans' lowly status fool you; this will be a very difficult game.
And being fooled is something not likely to happen to New England. The Patriots manage to focus on every given week's opponent as well as any team in the league. The Texans beat Buffalo last week but have yet to win two games in a row, and Houston's raucous home field gives them quite an advantage. But the Patriots, winners of six in a row, will try to force the Texans to look elsewhere for any kind of winning streak.
Here are some players to watch in this match-up:
Houston lost its starting quarterback, David Carr, to a shoulder injury last weekend. It is not known how long Carr will be out but he will miss Sunday's game against the Patriots, meaning back-up Tony Banks will be under center.
Facing a backup may present more of a problem for the Patriots than it appears, however.
New England head coach Bill Belichick said that there is not much of a drop-off from Carr to Banks. "Banks' (average) quarterback rating is around 95," he said, while starter Carr's is about 75. "So I'm not sure who's dropping off from where."
Banks only has 43 completions for 500 yards and no touchdowns this season. But his passer ratings are indeed off the charts, as Belichick observed. Banks has played in four games and in three of them his rating has exceeded 108. In only one game did he have a bad performance, a 30-21 loss against the Indianapolis Colts. But he has completed no fewer than 63% of his passes in any game.
What is most problematic for New England coaches is that there is little film on Banks to study and pick apart his game. Coach Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel have great success tearing down great quarterbacks by finding a weakness, or confusing an inexperienced youngster like Dallas' Quincy Carter last week.
Banks provides neither toe-hold for a coaching game plan. He is a veteran in his seventh year and a former starter for St. Louis, Baltimore and Washington. But he has played just four games in the Houston system. He is also 6-4, 230 pounds and can scramble, with 878 career rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground.
And he led the Texans to an achievement that the Patriots failed to do themselves: a win over the Bills in Buffalo. The Bills destroyed the Patriots 31-0, while the Texans beat the Bills 12-10. With that in mind, it is unlikely that the Patriots will take the Texans, or Tony Banks, lightly.
Coach Belichick always says that if a player can't practice during the week he can't play on Sunday. Typically this maxim refers to injured players, but it also applies to players who are so unfamiliar with the team's system that to put them on the field would only prove a liability to the team's chances.
Who would be just so unfamiliar with the system? Newly signed players, like receiver J.J. Stokes. The Patriots signed Stokes earlier this week to off-set injuries among the receivers already on the roster.
And sure enough, Stokes' first practices revealed he may yet have a ways to go. Coach Belichick said Stokes was "O.K. for learning a new system" but that he had to stay after practice to run more routes and catch more balls. "It's only been one day," Coach said, "but it didn't look bad." Not a ringing endorsement.
But don't be surprised to see Stokes in his new #85 jersey make an appearance in Houston. At 6-4 and 225 pounds, he presents by far the largest target of any Patriots receiver. David Givens was the largest at 6 feet, 212 pounds, but he is listed as questionable with a leg injury. Stokes would likely prove ideal in goal line situations, where he can go after jump balls in the corner or back of the end zone.
More likely to see the field is Dedric Ward, who was with the Patriots in training camp but released only to be re-signed this week to further bolster the team's wounded receiver group. Ward spent six weeks with the Ravens this season but was only active for three games before his release earlier this week.
Unlike Stokes, Ward is small at just 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds. But his other distinction from Stokes is his familiarity with the team's system after a summer in Patriots camp. Ward had some terrific performances in the preseason games, including 5 catches for 100 yards and a touchdown against the Bears and a 46-yard punt return against the Giants. More importantly, he seemed to have a good rapport with quarterback Tom Brady and with his similarities in size and speed to David Patten, there was some speculation in August that Ward could even replace Patten. (That may be just what has happened, in an unexpected way, via Patten's knee injury that has him out for the season.)
Coach Belichick said that Ward "came about as close to being kept on the 53-man roster (after training camp) as you could possibly be." Now that he's back, wearing #17, Ward could quite easily be seen on the field on this Sunday.
Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour could have a big day. The Texans are giving up sacks at a near-record clip over the past two years, with Carr going down 14 times in nine games played this season. Even the more-elusive Banks has already been sacked six times in his four games.
Seymour leads the team in sacks but is barely in the top 30 in the league with 4-1/2 so far this season. He will likely add to his total on Sunday against the inconsistent Houston offensive line. Texans right tackle Greg Randall may be familiar to Patriots fans: he was drafted by New England in 1999 but after an up-and-down career and a few tries as a starter, he was traded to Houston (for a fifth-round pick) just this past March.
The other Patriots defenders may not be so lucky. Houston's offense features two power players at the skill positions in rookie Andre Johnson, the third overall pick in the past draft, and rookie running back Domanack Davis, a fourth-round pick.
Johnson is a monster at 6-feet-2, 221 pounds. He has over 700 yards receiving and three touchdowns on the season. But one of those touchdowns came last week against the Bills, when he broke three tackles and carried or ran over defenders on his way to the end zone. He hung 122 yards on Buffalo, his second 100-yard-plus game this season.
Taking him down will be a tall order for rookie free safety Eugene Wilson, who was surprisingly fined by the league for a hit on Cowboys receiver Antonio Bryant last week. Despite film evidence to the contrary, the league claimed Wilson led with his helmet in that hit. But coaches said they could not tell him to do anything differently because it looked for all purposes like an absolutely perfect hit. Wilson will have to show a short memory, and bring that type of impact tackles to Houston, to be able to stop Johnson.
Meanwhile, fellow safety Rodney Harrison will be among those challenged to take down Davis. The rookie from LSU is only 5-9 but weighs 216 pounds and has 655 yards rushing and three touchdowns. He also has a very impressive 4.7 yards per carry average and has run for over 100 yards three times this season.
By contrast, New England's leading rushers, Kevin Faulk and Antowain Smith, average just 3.8 and 3.5 yards per carry respectively and neither has even one 100-yard game --- although to be fair the team is averaging 99.7 yards per game on the ground.
Still, the Patriots defense is finding ways to win, based in part on exceptional execution, including from some rookie contributors, and also based on the coaches' game plans. The defense has a chance to dominate any given week and will likely provide a few big plays against Houston this weekend.