Sunday, December 1, 2013

Four Point Stance: Patriots at Texans


The New England Patriots (8-3) are suddenly charging hard at the AFC's top seed and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs after defeating the conference-leading Denver Broncos in overtime last week.

They have, however, lost three straight on the road and this week visit the Houston Texans (2-9), who are a far different team now than the last time these teams met in last season's AFC Divisional playoffs. Once considered a piece or two away from contending for the Super Bowl, the Texans have lost nine straight since opening the year 2-0 and currently sit at the bottom of the conference, and are instead contending for the top overall pick in next year's draft.

Houston is still a highly talented team, especially on the defensive side of the ball. If New England wants to make a serious run at a No. 1 seed, it'll need to dispatch the Texans and stay healthy in the process.

When the Texans have the ball:
Matt Schaub has been at the helm of each of Houston's recent playoff teams and is healthy, but the Patriots will instead be facing quarterback Case Keenum on Sunday. The undrafted rookie made a splash in his first two starts but the passing game has since leveled off as Houston continues to lose. Also lacking its typical bite is the Texans' vaunted zone rushing attack, which currently ranks outside the top-10 in the league in yardage for what would be the first time in four seasons. Out for the year is tailback Arian Foster, and left to pick up the slack is the oft-injured Ben Tate. If the Patriots can mitigate Tate and the running game early, it'll put the onus on Keenum and the inconsistent Houston pass protection to move the ball through the air. Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib will be matched up all afternoon with all-world wideout Andre Johnson, who is the exact type of dominating downfield threat that Talib specializes in neutralizing. If he and the the secondary can slow Keenum's decision-making, the Patriots should be able to get pressure and make it a long day for the Texans' offense.

When the Patriots have the ball:
Despite allowing 26.3 points per game, which is good for 26th in the NFL, the Texans actually have the league's top-ranked defense in terms of yards allowed. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will technically be facing the league's No. 1 pass defense, but in reality Houston has just faced less passes than any other team as opponents have chosen to run against their defensive front. Quarterbacks actually have the 10th highest passer rating against them and no team has fewer interceptions than the Texans, with just four. The Patriots should have little trouble striking a balance in their offensive gameplan early on and putting the pressure on the hosts to respond.

Julian Edelman. Beyond the Texans' two starting boundary cornerbacks, the Houston secondary is a struggling bunch. Edelman has emerged as a consistent, reliable target in the New England offense and should have the opportunity to be rewarded with a productive receiving day. With his added contributions in the return game, Edelman should have a big impact in this one.

The Patriots are 4-1 all-time against the Texans, but lost the last time the teams played at Reliant Stadium in 2009. Tom Brady was held without a touchdown pass in that game but went on to throw at least one in each of his next 52 games, the second-longest such streak in NFL history and which was just broken in Week 5 of this year. The teams met twice last season, once in the regular season and once in the playoffs, with New England winning both games and totaling a 83-42 margin.

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