The New England Patriots will get the postseason started on Sunday after earning a bye week and some solid rest. They will be facing off against the Houston Texans, and the Texans are filled with revenge heading into this matchup after being blown out 42-14 earlier this season when both of these teams battled it out in a highly-anticipated Monday Night Football game. Here are the three keys to the game for the Patriots offense.
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1. Run it up the gut
The New England Patriots have one of the best run blocking centers in the league in Ryan Wendell, and left guard Logan Mankins is also an elite, mauling run blocker. Stevan Ridley is a workhorse between the tackles, and this all bodes well for the Patriots against a weak Texans interior. Not only do the Texans run a 3-4 which gives them more space at the first level, but, more importantly, the Texans depth at inside linebacker has been severely depleted. Several players have been placed on the injured reserve throughout the season, and the most recent casualty was solid ILB Tim Dobbins.
He was the only capable starter left in the Texans ILB core, and his loss is a huge gain for Ridley and the Patriots. Bradie James and Barrett Ruud are now the starters, and Mankins had a field day with James in the running game. Ruud and James both bring veteran leadership to the squad and Ruud can cover a little bit, but both players are awful in run defense. Having both of them paired up together is a disaster for the Texans and great news for their opponents. The Patriots should be able to take huge advantage of Ruud, because he is particularly poor against mauling interior offensive linemen.
2. Hit up Brandon Lloyd
When the New England Patriots faced off against the Houston Texans in Week 14, Brandon Lloyd had a breakout game with seven catches for 89 yards and a touchdown. Jonathan Joseph has improved health-wise and thus has gotten back to being his old self at corner, but Lloyd also tore up the strong San Francisco 49ers pass defense a week later (the Niners have the best corners in the league). The Texans are susceptible to getting beat deep, while Lloyd excels against less-aggressive secondaries like the Texans. Tom Brady should plan on hitting some deep passes to Lloyd (and maybe even Rob Gronkowski), and he should also look for Lloyd and Wes Welker an abundant amount in the intermediate game (mostly Lloyd, though).
3. Eyes on Wade Phillips
Wade Phillips is one of the most aggressive blitzers in the NFL and while that strategy usually pays off for the Houston Texans defensive coordinator, it didn’t manifest itself in Week 14. The Texans blitzed well over half the time, and yet they barely came up with any pressure. The only pass rusher who consistently put pressure on Brady was J.J. Watt, and he puts pressure on everybody. The outside linebackers were disappointing, and they have fallen off from their scintillating play earlier this season. The Patriots need to watch and see if Phillips decides to lighten up against the Pats, because ineffective blitzing leads to a near-guaranteed loss against a great QB like Brady. He tore them up last time, and he will do the same again if the Patriots protection continues to play well. Nate Solder has fallen off from his scorching play at left tackle a bit, but he has still been solid. Sebastian Vollmer is playing better than ever, and the Patriots have two great blocking TEs in Daniels Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui (more of an H-back), in addition to Rob Gronkowski if he gets left in to block significantly. We’ll see how this chess match goes between Phillips and Bill Belichick, but I anticipate the Pats holding off the Texans heat once again.
You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.