Gone are the letter jackets. Gone is the mystique. Whereas last year at this time the New England Patriots were preparing for an 11-1 Houston Texans team, they are now readying themselves for a Texans team that finds itself wounded and cornered.
Here is how the Patriots can finish off what is left of the Texans as you finish off your Thanksgiving leftovers this Sunday.
Patriots Defense vs. Texans Offense
In his weekly conference call, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia mentioned the deep passing attack as something the Patriots will have to be cognizant of.
I think that is built into their offensive system, the ability to do that. Whatever the situation may be or the game plan may call for, obviously they are going to design plays where they think they can take advantage of the defense. Certainly, you can see with Keenum in there his ability to really stretch the field and get the ball downfield. It's certainly something we have to be ready for and the surrounding core of skill players allow them to do that.
Obviously Andre Johnson, a great player, just so dynamic and so explosive and so dangerous, is really an excellent, excellent target for him. And you know [DeAndre] Hopkins is doing a great job and [Devier] Posey out there on the field. [Garrett] Graham, too, at the tight end position, really can also push the ball vertically through the middle of the field, which can certainly stress the defense.
With the banged up defensive secondary, a deep passing contest is something that the Patriots don't want to get involved in.
One way to prevent deep routes is to get to the quarterback before the receivers can work their way down the field and uncover. I expect to see the Patriots use a variety of blitzes—A-gap, corner, overload—and jam the Texans receivers at the line.
How the Patriots use Jamie Collins is going to be one of the more intriguing facets of the game. I expect he and Dane Fletcher to be used often in third-down situations.
However, the passing game won't matter if the Patriots give up 280 yards of rushing again this week. Joe Vellano, Isaac Sopoaga and Chris Jones will have to anchor much better this week against the Texans offensive line.
Patriots Offense vs. Texans Defense
While the Texans offense has looked abysmal at times this year, their defense is still stocked with talent on all three levels.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels mentioned J.J. Watt as a player that they'll have to keep their collective eyes on.
He forces you to deal with him on every play, his effort is incredible, his ability is unique. I mean, he's as talented a defensive player as you have to play against. I would say at some point in the game, most every one of our linemen will have to block him, because they do move him. He flips in their base defense based on the way you set your formations, but in their sub fronts, sometimes he's outside, sometimes he's inside, he could be on the right, he could be on the left. He's as disruptive to your planning and to what you want to do as any other defensive player that you play against, and you certainly have to account for him.
No matter where Watt lines up, he'll draw a lot of attention from the Patriots. He was held without a sack or tackle for loss last year, and I wouldn't be surprised if it happens again. Bill Belichick takes away your best player whether he is on offense or defense.
What They're Saying
Hello. My name is Stevan Ridley, and I have a fumbling problem. While I assume that Ridley didn't have to get up in front of his teammates and repeat that, he certainly hasn't been immune to criticism from fans and media.
Doug Kyed from NESN.com had this to say both in support and in opposition to Ridley in one of the more level-headed approaches to his ball-security issues.
I’ve been a huge supporter of Ridley this season. I thought the fumbles would go away. Eric Dickerson, Walter Payton and a player Patriots fans are familiar with, Kevin Faulk, all had fumbling issues early in their careers. So it’s certainly possible Ridley won’t carry these ball-security errors with him for the rest of his career.
But for now, it’s obvious Ridley has a problem, whether it’s as simple to solve as how he holds the ball or as difficult as a lack of confidence. And until he fixes whatever is plaguing him, Ridley has to be used sparingly.
I'd like to see Brandon Bolden get the ball to start the game, but if the Patriots are in a low-pressure situation, I think that McDaniels will feed Ridley the ball to get his confidence up.
Tale of the Tape
Although Case Keenum has had his moments—scrambling wildly and hitting Andre Johnson—he isn't anywhere near Tom Brady's level. The Patriots will try and force Keenum into some mistakes this Sunday, and my guess is that Keenum will oblige.
Shane Vereen—despite some drops—and Brandon Bolden have played well as of late, but fumbles are a problem for New England. Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount each earned time on the bench due to putting the ball on the ground against the Broncos. With Arian Foster on injured reserve, the Patriots are arguably more talented at the position, but turnovers are a great equalizer.
The Texans may have the star power—Andre Johnson is a supreme talent—but the Patriots have the depth. DeAndre Hopkins and DeVier Posey have had their good plays, but it seems like each week a different Patriots receiver steps up and has an enormous day. Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Kenbrell Thompkins all have had their time in the sun.
Garrett Graham has filled in nicely for the injured Owen Daniels, but he can't match the firepower brought by Rob Gronkowski. As Gronkowski rounds into form, this Patriots offense has started to take off.
The Texans offensive line has a lot of talent, but it hasn't played up to its billing so far in 2013. The Patriots should have the advantage here, but Marcus Cannon's absence could be costly in pass protection.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich continued their fine play last week against Denver, with Jones being named Defensive Player of the Month. As well as they've played, we have to give the advantage to the team with J.J. Watt, perhaps the best player in football right now.
The Patriots are building depth and capacity in their linebacker corps with Jerod Mayo on injured reserve. Jamie Collins has emerged as a versatile defender, while Dane Fletcher is making big plays on a weekly basis. It is obvious that the Texans miss Brian Cushing here, although former Patriot Jeff Tarpinian hasn't been bad in his stead.
The Patriots still have a top-flight secondary, but the injuries are starting to mount. If Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington are able to play the whole game, they have a clear advantage over Johnathan Joseph, Brice McCain, Kareem Jackson and Brandon Harris.
The Patriots special teams have been their most consistent phase over the course of the season. Kicking, punting and coverage have all been well above average. Houston, however, has struggled to convert relatively easy field goals with its much-maligned kicker Randy Bullock.
Overall: Patriots 5-1-3
The tale of the tape favors the Patriots pretty heavily, but you can't count out a talented team with players fighting for their jobs and the job of their coach. At this point in the year, this is the Super Bowl for Houston. I expect a relatively close game.
Wednesday's Injury Report Analysis
Did Not Participate: Michael Hoomanawanui, Aaron Dobson, Marcus Cannon
Limited Participation: Kyle Arrington, Marquice Cole, Alfonzo Dennard, Steve Gregory, Rob Gronkowski, Aqib Talib, Chris White
Full Participation: Danny Amendola, Tom Brady, Matthew Slater, Brandon Spikes, Shane Vereen
Aaron Dobson's absence from practice on account of a foot injury helped shed light on why the talented rookie didn't see much action after halftime. He was replaced by Kenbrell Thompkins, who helped sparked the comeback by the Patriots.
Marcus Cannon was also absent from practice, which means backup Will Svitek is looking good to start against Houston.
Michael Hoomanawanui is still nursing a knee injury. The Patriots signed tight end D.J. Williams to their roster to help bolster depth at the position.