The New England Patriots are coming off of winning their 9th AFC title in ten years in their 23-13 win over the Miami Dolphins. It wasn’t a pretty win, but it was a win that showed the Patriots could get the job done even when Brady wasn’t on his best performance. Now, the Pats will set their eyes on loftier goals like seeding in the upcoming AFC playoffs. They will do that despite losing wide receiver Julian Edelman to a foot injury for the rest of the season.
This Monday night, the Patriots will play what could be an AFC Championship Preview against the Houston Texans. Houston has the best record in the AFC at 11-1, but this game on Monday is seen by many experts as the biggest game in their franchise history. For Matt Schaub, it is a chance to prove himself considering that he was not healthy during the team’s run to the Divisional Playoffs last year. Plus, you have to account for J.J Watt and his ability to tip passes like it is nobody’s business. If the Texans can win this game, you can officially say the road to New Orleans goes through Reliant Stadium. But, even though the Patriots will still be without Rob Gronkowski, they will likely have defensive lineman Chandler Jones and offensive lineman Logan Mankins back for this crucial game.
Here are my keys to the Monday Night Mayhem in Foxboro:
Foster: Texan For Running Back: When you talk about the Houston Texans, you have to talk about All-Pro running back Arian Foster. Foster has rushed for over 1,100 yards (5th in the NFL) and 13 touchdowns, which is in the NFL. Considering that Houston does not have a reliable number two running back, those stats are pretty impressive. Foster has had two 100+ rushing yard performance in his last three games. However, against the Titans last week, he only had 14 carries for 38 yards in Houston’s 24-10 victory. The key for the Patriots’ run defense is going to be to use middle linebacker Brandon Spikes to plug up the holes that Houston presents in their zone blocking scheme. If Foster gets into the secondary, the Texans will make big plays and force Brady and company to beat them from behind.
Not Enough Watts In The Lightbulb: This week, in practice, the Patriots started using brooms and racquetball rackets to simulate Houston’s pass rush. The reason for that is because the Abominable Tip Monster (J.J Watt) will be on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Houston has had their share of injuries in the front seven with the loss of linebackers Brooks Reed and Brian Cushing. However, the loss of the has been downplayed because of the dominant play from Watt. He has 16.5 sacks this season, including six sacks in his last three games. In fact, he has only had three games this season with less than one sack. The one stat that stands out though is the 15 tipped passes he has had this year. So, Brady will have to adjust and throw more screen passes to avoid passes getting tipped and eventually intercepted. Keep an eye also on how Watt takes advantage of a banged up Pats offensive line.
- Stump The Schaub: Over the past three weeks, the Patriots have done a much better job at getting pressure on the quarterback and forcing turnovers, thus leading to the best turnover differential in the NFL. Can they do that against what some seem to think is an above average quarterback in Matt Schaub. Schaub has had good success in Houston, but he has also had a tenure filled with injuries. Finally, he is healthy for a full season and on pace to have his best season as a Texan with 21 touchdowns and 9 interceptions so far. The key for why Houston’s pass offense has been so successful is their play-action. Schaub has ran 30% of his plays via the play-action, which is the 5th highest percentage in the NFL. He also has two great weapons in wide receiver Andre Johnson (1,000+ yards) and tight end Owen Daniels (6 touchdowns). The Patriots got burned by the play-action against Russell Wilson earlier this year. Will it haunt them again versus a veteran quarterback?
In my opinion, this game is very crucial for the Patriots in terms of their playoff implications. A win could get them in a good position to overtake Houston and still have a chance at home-field advantage. On the other hand, a loss could drop them below the Broncos and Ravens in the AFC playoff picture and put them in jeopardy of having to play on Wild Card Weekend. I expect this game to be a high scoring game because we have seen over the past couple of weeks, you can throw on the Texan secondary. However, Jonathan Joseph is going to return to the lineup for Houston coming off of a hamstring injury. Both teams will be on their A game, but I expect J.J Watt and Antonio Smith to take advantage of a banged up Patriots’ offensive line that gave up 4 sacks to the Miami Dolphins last week. Can the Patriots also keep up in the secondary with Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels? That remains to be seen. If New England wins this game, they are the team to beat in the AFC. However, I think with all the injuries, I am going for only the second time on this site to pick against the Pats in this one because their front seven matches up better with the Pats’ offensive line.
TEXANS 31 PATRIOTS 28