Many apologies to the absence of this post last weekend; I recently obtained a job with varying hours. Anyway, this is possibly the biggest game of the season for the conference. It’s the beginning of New England’s “Homestand From Hell,” starting with the Houston Texans this week and continuing with the San Francisco 49ers next week. The Texans are 11-1 and have looked fantastic in all phases of the game (except special teams) this season. Meanwhile, the Patriots are coming off a rough game in which they only barely defeated the Miami Dolphins, largely considered to be an inferior team. The Patriots offense is the best in the league on third down, and the Texans defense is the best in the league on third down. The Patriots are at home, but the Texans have never lost on the road. The Patriots have won six straight, but so have the Texans. The Patriots are one of the best teams in the league during the month of December, but the Texans have only lost once all year. The teams are pretty evenly matched. To the match-up-o-meter!
1. The New England receivers vs the Houston Texans defensive back
The Texans are only the 19th ranked team against the pass, but there is a lot of talent in the Texans defensive backfield. Jonathan Joseph is one of the best corners in the AFC, and is likely to start this game. Stanford Routt was recently signed, and despite being entirely misutilized in Kansas City, he was excellent in Oakland. Kareem Jackson has been mediocre, but that’s a gigantic improvement from last season. Danieal Manning and Glover Quin have been decent, but consistent, which is important in this league.
Having Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman out for this game is very bad for the Patriots. If Gronkowski were active, I’d pick the Patriots in a heartbeat. As it stands, they’re forced to rely on Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez. Lloyd got shut down against Miami, and he might get shut down if Joseph plays; this is ok, the Patriots can win if one player gets shut out, as it opens up other options. There is no corner who can shut down Welker. Hernandez ought to have a good day, but he needs to be used over the middle. I hope to see Stallworth involved; he may not run a 4.19 forty anymore, but I’m sure he’s still got some speed. The runningbacks need to be involved as well. Joseph coming off an injury may turn the tide in favor of the Patriots.
Edge: New England
2. The New England offensive line vs the Houston defensive line
J. J. Watt is my pick for the MVP; not just Defensive Player of the Year, Most Valuable Player of the Year. He does everything well. Antonio Smith is a massively underrated 3-4 defensive end. Shaun Cody may start, but he doesn’t play as many snaps as Earl Mitchell, who’s better against the run than he is against the pass.
Sebastian Vollmer might be the best right tackle in the league, but he didn’t play like it last week. So far this season he’s struggled against only Von Miller and Cameron Wake, two elite players. If he struggled against them, he will likely struggle against Watt. Solder will have his hands full with Smith, so the guards will need to get involved on double teams. Logan Mankins might play, and I’d like to see him, but I really want Donald Thomas to start over Dan Connolly. Ryan Wendell should be fine this game, as both nosetackles are weak rushers and the linebackers are bad all around.
3. The New England runningbacks vs the Houston linebackers
Bradie James and Barrett Ruud might start, but it doesn’t matter. None of the Texans inside linebackers are any good. Connor Barwin and Whitney Mercilus, on the other hand, are very adept and will likely get involved in all phases of the game.
Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden are all ready and raring to go, and whoever is active will be sorely needed. If the Patriots get into a situation where the game needs to be closed out, Ridley has to hold onto the ball and get four yards per pop. They did that last time against a strong front seven, so I trust he can do it again.
Edge: New England
4. The New England defensive backs vs the Houston receivers
This is basically a game of Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels; it’s not like Keshawn Martin and Kevin Walter are to be feared. Johnson absolutely has to be doubled on every play. Daniels will likely feast, as do all tight ends against the Patriots.
If Aqib Talib gets safety help against Johnson, he’ll get shut down a la Larry Fitzgerald. I trust Alfonzo Dennard against Walter, Kyle Arrington against whoever lines up in the slot (yes, I’ve come around on him) and Devin McCourty over the top. The only player who concerns me is Steve Gregory; here’s hoping Pat Chung or Tavon Wilson play more than he does.
Edge: New England
5. The New England defensive line vs the Houston offensive line
Duane Brown is playing like the best left tackle in football, while Chris Myers is playing like a top tier center. The right side of the Texans line is the weak point; disappointing Derek Newton is out, and Ryan Harris isn’t much better.
If Chandler Jones registers even one pressure against Brown, I’ll be satisfied. It’s more important for Jones to play the run. Vince Wilfork takes up two blockers no matter who he faces, but Kyle Love will need to play lights out to complement him. Rob Ninkovich has to feast if he faces Harris, but I’m not sure if he can. It’s not all about getting to Schaub; Arian Foster must be contained.
6. The New England linebackers vs the Houston runningbacks
Arian Foster may be one of the most successful runningbacks this season, but I’m not entirely convinced he’s that good. I’m of the opinion that his success is largely owed to his offensive line. Justin Forsett isn’t spectacular, and Brandon Tate has only been used sparingly; he might still be getting back into the lineup. If Foster gets popped, he tends to run much worse.
If there’s any player to do some popping, it’s Brandon Spikes. He needs to set the tone early, and his form needs to be top notch. That’s where Dont’a Hightower has struggled, but he ought to be able to shed the blocks of James Casey and Owen Daniels well enough. Jerod Mayo is excellent at containing weakside runs as well.
Edge: New England
I can’t stop thinking about this game, and it’s definitely going to be exciting. It could go to overtime, it could be a shootout, or it could be a game the winning team has a three touchdown margin. I’m usually one of the more critical bloggers when it comes to the Patriots, but I somehow think they’ll eke out a win here. I’m not going to give a score prediction, but I do think New England will come out victorious.
New England W, Houston L
You can follow Christopher Field on Twitter @ChrisDField.