Jan 13, 2013; Foxboro, MA, USA; Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson (80) catches a pass for a two point conversion over New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib (31) during the second half of the AFC divisional round playoff game at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots won 41-28. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
The Houston Texans were a favorite this season to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl in the preseason. “Super Bowl or Bust” was the rallying cry of the Texans. After jumping out to a 2-0 start to the season, the Texans got blown out by the defending world champion Ravens starting a 0-9 slide. Now the Patriots come to Houston to try and end their three game road losing streak this season in a game that looked like a big matchup before the season, but now looks like a mismatch.
Hold it right there. There is no such thing as a mismatch in the NFL. At home, after losing to Jacksonville, the Texans are a team on a mission playing for pride at home this weekend against their arch-enemy. Every pundit is pointing to an easy Patriots win, but this game could be a lot more difficult to win for New England and the final result a lot closer than anyone anticipates.
The Texans slide kicked off with the blowout against Baltimore in week three, but in week four they lost to Seattle in a game they should have won. The Texans lost to the Chiefs by one point in week seven, by three to the Colts the next week, by three to Arizona in week ten, by five to Oakland and by a touchdown last week. A few bounces, a few big plays, a little luck and the Texans could have seven or eight wins right now like everyone expected.
In addition, the Patriots are traveling 2,000 miles and are coming off two highly-charged, emotional games against strong opponents. If there was ever a chance for a letdown, this is the kind of game it would happen. For the Patriots, this is still a dangerous opponent who would love nothing more than beating the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season. Here are two major areas where the Patriots need to play their best this afternoon against the Texans in order to win the game:
THE HOUSTON PASS RUSH:
Nov 24, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) sits on the bench during the first quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Reliant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
All-pro defensive end J.J. Watt will be lining up across from the Patriots third string tackle Will Svitek. There will be no Sebastian Vollmer in a battle of the behemoths. There will be no Marcus Cannon to see if “round” can defeat “long”. No, it is Will Svitek, who played guard most of the preseason, who dropped behind the currently injured Marcus Cannon at right tackle when Vollmer went down. A third string tackle against the best defensive end in the NFL does not seem like a recipe for success.
Remember, in December 2012 during the regular season in the much hyped matchup in Foxboro, MA (also known as the “Varsity Jacket” game) J.J. Watt entered the game with 16.5 sacks and there was talk of him breaking Michael Strahan’s NFL record. Watt left the game with 16.5 sacks after being shut-out. By shut-out, it meant no sacks, no tackles for a loss. Really, it was not just Vollmer either, as the Texans moved Watt all over the line during the game.
By whatever measure used, J.J. Watt is the top of the rankings in the NFL right now as far as defensive players rushing the quarterback, stuffing the running game, creating turnovers, and batting down passes. Antonio Smith on the other end is no slouch either. One pass rusher who returned to form last week was outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus who added a sack, three quarterback hits and four hurries. Getting Mercilus on track makes a big improvement for the Houston defense against a passing offense.
With the Patriots rushing attack a question mark after fumbles last week by both Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount, the passing game will have to perform. The Patriots are already short one wide receiver with Aaron Dobson out with a foot injury, so the offensive line will need to stop the Texans pass rush to give the Patriots a chance to move the ball against the stout Texans front seven.