Despite so much attention being paid to the Chiefs, could the Texans actually represent a bigger challenge to the Patriots in the conference?
January 3, 2010.
That’s a significant date in the shared history between the New England Patriots and the Houston Texans franchises. It was on that particular date that Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the 10-5 Patriots ventured south to take on Bill O’Brien, Matt Schaub, and the 8-7 Texans.
New England, playing for postseason seeding but assured of their playoff berth, decided to rest several key team members like Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, Leigh Bodden, Laurence Maroney, and Kevin Faulk.
They did not rest Wes Welker, who memorably went down to the turf during the Pats’ opening drive with a non-contact injury. Welker – New England’s leading receiver that season – suffered a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, and one week later, the Patriots were bounced at home in the Wild Card round by the Baltimore Ravens.
The Texans did not qualify for the playoffs this particular year, but they did secure their first ever winning season by virtue of beating the Patriots in that final game. Perhaps more significantly, this game represents the only time in 11 tries (including the playoffs) that Houston has defeated New England in a meaningful professional football game.
Could that change in 2019?
O’Brien – a former offensive coordinator for the Pats under Belichick – is winless in five games versus his ex-boss and his ex-team. And yet, he’s never had a team like this one. O’Brien’s Texans have long been known for their defensive prowess, featuring a roster littered with stars like J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Johnathan Joseph, Benardrick McKinney, Jadeveon Clowney, and even Wilfork for a time.
Clowney is with Seattle now and Wilfork is retired, but this defense remains stout under the tutelage of another former New England assistant coach: Romeo Crennel, Houston’s current assistant head coach and defensive coordinator.
It’s the Texans offense that’s really turning heads this season though.
Third-year quarterback Deshaun Watson is right up there with Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes and Seattle QB Russell Wilson in the early race for league MVP. His completion percentage and quarterback rating have both steadily risen every year he’s been in the NFL, he’s on pace for 32 touchdowns against just eight interceptions this year, and he’s very much on track to throw for a career high in passing yards this season.
He’s also a threat to make plays with his legs. Watson already has five rushing touchdowns this season, which ties the career high he had last season with the Texans. His career yards per rush attempt is 5.9, which speaks volumes to just how effective he can be when scrambling or working on designed runs.
It’s not a one-man show, either. DeAndre Hopkins has had an uncharacteristically quiet start to his season, but he’s still universally considered to be one of the top-five wide receivers in the NFL today. His running mate Will Fuller is finally healthy this year and quickly emerging into the home-run threat everyone expected him to be when he was first drafted – Fuller had 14 catches for 217 yards and three scores just a week ago.
Houston also has quality No. 3 and No. 4 guys in Keke Coutee and Kenny Stills. Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson are a perfect complement to one another at running back, and Darren Fells and Jordan Akins are more than serviceable at tight end.
The biggest weakness on this Texans team in recent years was always the offensive line, but even that has markedly improved in 2019. Houston drafted Tytus Howard in the first round this year to play right tackle, drafted Max Scharping in the second round to play left guard, and acquired Laremy Tunsil from the Miami Dolphins to play left tackle.
These moves have paid off in spades for the Texans – and for Watson, in particular. A year ago, the former Clemson Tiger was sacked 62 times – the highest rate in the league – as his offensive line gave up an average of nearly four sacks per game. This season, the Houston line has reduced that number to a three sacks per game average.
Is that perfect? Far from it. But it still represents a positive trend for a team whose pass protection has long been viewed as its Achilles heel.
So here’s the million-dollar question: can this new and improved Texans team win for just the second time ever against the big bad Patriots?
The Texans are fresh off a convincing road victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, and sitting pretty at 4-2 on the year. They still have to tangle with the Indianapolis Colts twice before they host the Pats on December 1 down in Reliant Stadium, and those two games loom large in determining the division winner for the AFC South this season.
But if Sunday’s results are any indication, it might be time for Pats fans to start adjusting their line of thinking just a bit.
Ever since New England and Kansas City gave us a pair of thrillers in 2018, the prevailing expectation has been that the AFC would once again be a two-horse race between the Patriots and the Chiefs in 2019. Fans of both squads have had Week 14 circled on their calendars, as that’s when New England will once again “welcome” Kansas City into Gillette Stadium for a game of major conference importance.
As it turns out, Week 13 might be an even bigger deal than Week 14 for the Pats and their fans. Even if New England absolutely owns the historical series against Houston, this Texans team looks legit after going into Arrowhead and taking down the mighty Chiefs. Because of that result, it’s not a stretch to suggest that the Texans – as opposed to the Chiefs – represent the biggest challenger to the Patriots in the AFC this season.
What do you think? Who’s a bigger threat to New England this year – Kansas City or Houston? Let us know in the comments section below!