(Before It's News)
With the Pats/Texans game coming up in two days, here is my review of how things might have changed since their last meeting.
The Patriots dominated that previous meeting, a 27-0 beatdown in Foxboro last September. A lot has changed for the Patriots and the Texans since then; here is a quick list of what will look different this Saturday in Foxboro.
Rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett made his first NFL start in the regular-season game. Tom Brady will be making start number 267 this weekend. The Texans weren't sure what to expect from Brissett, but they know full well what Brady brings to the table. He has a 6-1 lifetime record against Houston, his last win a 27-6 shellacking in the Lone Star state.
Brady will throw to two receivers that the Texans didn't see much from last time: rookie Malcolm Mitchell and free agent signee Malcolm Floyd. Mitchell had just one catch in the earlier contest, but he's come into his own late in the season, averaging four catches and almost 58 yards over the last six games. And Floyd went beast mode in the season finale, carrying six Dolphins into the end zone on one play and blasting a would-be tackler on a 77-yard touchdown run by Julian Edelman.
Finally, running back LeGarrette Blount punished the Texans on the ground (105 yards and two touchdowns), but he will have much more help in the rematch. Shifty back Dion Lewis returned to his pre-injury form and provides the perfect complement to Blount's bruising style. And James White had his least productive game against Houston, improving as the year went on, much like Mitchell.
In personnel terms, the main difference this time will come at linebacker. Jamie Collins dominated the first game, but ended up traded to Cleveland, and long-time starter Jonathan Freeney played in September but is on IR for this game. Defensive captain Dont'a Hightower missed the first game, Shea McClellin barely got on the field (28% of the defensive snaps), rookie Elandon Roberts didn't play at all, current starter Kyle Van Noy wore a Lions uniform, and defensive end Rob Ninkovich missed the first game and moved to linebacker to provide experience and depth. I know, that's a lot of changes (and a really long sentence… sorry).
The talent probably took a hit overall. But schematically the coaches settled on a regular LB rotation, and that allowed them to experiment with more looks and schemes in the secondary and on the line of scrimmage. The Patriots employ more corner and safety blitzes now, and they also work more stunts and twists up front on the defensive line. They shut out the Texans in September, and the defense has more tricks up its sleeve for the rematch.
The other big change is the play of Trey Flowers. He started the season slowly and played just 61% of the defensive snaps against Houston. However, around mid-season he took off in this defense. All seven of his sacks have come in the last nine games, and every one of them came in big games: Buffalo, Seattle, Baltimore, and Denver.
(BTW, strange to think that the second Buffalo game was a big one — but at the time, a loss would have put the Bills one game behind the Pats *with* the head-to-head tie-breaker.)
Some people think the loss of J.J. Watt presents the biggest problem for Houston. But his back injury obviously slowed him in the first game, and he wasn't much of a factor. Losing Watt isn't a good thing, but honestly his absence doesn't change things much from the September game.
One thing that did change was the Houston quarterback situation. In fact, it changed multiple times; starter Brock Osweiler was benched for poor play, and his replacement, Tom Savage lasted three starts until a concussion knocked him out. Savage has cleared the concussion protocol, but Osweiler will reportedly start on Saturday, after getting his first playoff win last weekend. All in all that's probably okay with the Patriots — Osweiler's record and his TD-to-INT ratio against the Pats are identical: 1-2.
Texans defensive end Whitney Mercilus finished the season playing better than he was in September. He had 10 tackles and four sacks in his last two meaningful games, and he's the play-wrecker the Patriots have to worry about on the defensive line. Playing opposite Mercilus is budding star Jadeveon Clowney, who is coming into his own at just the right time for the Texans. He got his first NFL interception last week, and has a sack in three of his last four games.
The first game was probably the biggest special teams blowout the Patriots had since the 2002 AFC Championship Game. They forced two fumbles on kickoff returns, recovering both and scoring touchdowns on each of those drives. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski not only placed his kickoffs perfectly, but he was 2-2 on field goals and 3-3 on extra points. And all seven of Ryan Allen's punts were downed at or inside the Houston 20 yard-line, four of them at or inside the 10.
It's unlikely Saturday's game will feature such a lopsided special teams performance.
The weather will be quite a bit different this time. It was 68 degrees at kickoff in September; current predictions call for 25-ish temps on Saturday. To underline how much that could mean, consider this statistic: warm-weather and dome teams are 0-11 in Foxboro playoff games since 1979. Ironically the last Pats loss in that situation was to Houston — the 1978 Oilers of Bum Phillips, QB Dan Pastorini, and some running back named Earl Campbell.
(Factoid: the highest-rated Patriots passer in that game was running back Andy Johnson, who completed one touchdown pass for 24 yards, earning him a perfect 158.3 QB rating.)
One last thing to keep in mind is that the previous game was a Thursday night contest. The Texans had to go on the road on a short week, and anyone who follows the NFL knows road teams fare poorly in those situations. The Patriots offense will be better on Saturday, but the Texans will no doubt show up better rested and prepared.
Probably not enough has changed in the Texans favor to indicate they can turn-around a 27-point loss. However, if they just don't turn the ball over they can stay with the Pats. The Patriots offense traditionally starts slowly after a bye week, so Houston has to capitalize and get a lead early.
Failing that it the Patriots should be able to handle them. But I'd guess tighter than people think: 31-20.
Enjoy the game, and keep the faith,
PS. 14-2 & 0-0!