Patriots vs. Texans: Full New England Game Preview

Sterling Xie@@sxie1281Correspondent IIDecember 10, 2015

Patriots vs. Texans: Full New England Game Preview

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    Can Tom Brady and Co. get back on track at Houston?
    Can Tom Brady and Co. get back on track at Houston?Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Panic is not a customary feeling around Foxborough, but the New England Patriots are feeling a bit of heat after their second consecutive loss last week.  Now out of a first-round bye, the Pats have squandered the cushion they created with their 10-0 start, and while a playoff berth remains exceedingly likely, they can no longer simply look ahead to January.

    The Houston Texans will present lots of familiar faces both on the coaching staff (Bill O'Brien, Romeo Crennel, Mike Vrabel) and on the field (Brian Hoyer, Vince Wilfork).  "New England South" has rebounded after a porous start and sits in a tie for first place in the AFC South following a recent four-game winning streak.

    Even though the Pats have lost just once to the Texans since they came into existence in 2002, every game they've played at Houston has been decided by one possession, with both wins coming by three points.  History doesn't necessarily hold much relevance in this matchup, but even if Rob Gronkowski and/or Dont'a Hightower returns to the field, the Patriots won't have much margin for error in this game.

    A losing streak is an unfamiliar feeling around New England, and there will surely be a strong sense of urgency to get back in the win column Sunday night.  Read on for full analysis of how the Patriots can retake control of their season.

Week 13 Results and Recap

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    Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

    New England almost never shoots itself in the foot, which made its cavalcade of errors against the Philadelphia Eagles that much more surprising.  The Patriots made a month's worth of backbreaking mistakes in one game and, despite a furious rally, fell short in a 35-28 decision.

    It's hard to think of a worse special teams showing in the Bill Belichick era, as the Pats gave up a punt return touchdown and a punt blocked for a touchdown; the team also gave up a pick-six.  Even though they outgained the Eagles by roughly 200 yards and held a nearly 10-minute edge in time of possession, those massive mistakes undid the fact that New England generally outplayed the Eagles on a down-to-down basis.

    Tom Brady, who threw that pick-six to Malcolm Jenkins, did rally the Patriots for two touchdowns in the final six minutes to pull within one score.  However, Brady also completed just 29 of 56 passes (51.8 percent), leading to a season-low 5.4 yards-per-attempt average.  Moreover, in taking double-digit hits for the third straight game, Brady continued to receive a beating behind the offensive line's shoddy protection.

    If the Patriots lose home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs, this will be the game they'll have the most regrets about.  In blowing a two-touchdown lead in consecutive weeks for the first time in franchise history, New England has generally played well enough to win but has not demonstrated any of the killer instinct the Patriots have been known for under Brady and Belichick.

News and Notes

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Where Patriots Passing Game Is Suffering

    Given how many strange plays occurred to put the Patriots in a three-touchdown hole against the Eagles, most fans aren't in full panic mode yet.  The MMQB's Andy Benoit saw many aspects of the loss as aberrational but did not dismiss how effectively Philly eliminated some of the intermediate staples of New England's passing game.

    With Gronkowski out, there’s obviously one less mismatch at Brady’s disposal. (The Next Man Up mantra can only go so far.) One area where the Patriots offense did dry up was at the intermediate levels. What success they had here often came out of structure, not within the timing of the play. The Eagles employed a lot of split-safety looks, which is a good way to defend the seams and also provide help against skinny posts (two Patriots staples).

    Indeed, Brady held the ball far longer than would be ideal if the passing game was humming along.  According to Pro Football Focus, Brady's average time to pass last week was 2.95 seconds, 26th-fastest among the 32 starters.  For reference, his full season average is 2.36 seconds, second-fastest in the league.

    This isn't an unfamiliar problem, especially if you've watched the Green Bay Packers at all this year.  At some point, even a transcendent quarterback isn't going to overcome receivers who have consistent issues beating man coverage.  The aerial attack is far from hopeless, but the current personnel is heavily stressing both Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

    Historically Woeful Special Teams

    To see the Patriots' special teams deliver such an egregiously terrible performance against Philadelphia was nothing short of shocking.  As I noted my postgame recap, New England possessed the league's top-ranked special teams unit by Football Outsiders' DVOA metric headed into the game.  After the Eagles debacle, the Pats dropped all the way to sixth.

    Just how unusual was that collapse from a top-ranked special teams unit?  According to Football Outsiders' Andrew Healy, it might be the worst late-season showing from an elite special teams unit in FO's entire database, which dates back to 1989:

    Given the Patriots' dominance on special teams until this weekend, Sunday's meltdown is different from the normal craziness that can happen on special teams. For games in Week 10 and later, Sunday's game marked the first time that a special teams unit entered the game tops in the league and then posted the worst performance of the season. That minus 44.9% DVOA is also the lowest rating for a top-ranked special teams unit in Week 10 or later in our data (since 1989).

    It's highly improbable the Patriots will ever again have two failed onside kicks from a reserve safety or two punts that result in return touchdowns for the opposing squad.  Special teams are far more variable than either offense or defense, but considering the circumstances, New England's Week 13 implosion was as much of an outlier as the league has ever seen.

    No. 2 Seed Most Likely for Patriots

    The offshoot of New England's loss is that three teams are now tied atop the AFC at 10-2.  In Football Outsiders' updated playoff odds column (via ESPN.com), Aaron Schatz untangled the tiebreaker scenarios for the triad while also noting that the Patriots are ultimately most likely to end up as the No. 2 seed:

    But all teams can't possibly finish 14-2. Either the Bengals lose to the Broncos, or the Broncos lose to the Bengals. (A Bengals-Broncos tie, if the three teams win out otherwise, would make the Patriots the top seed at 14-2 with the Bengals and Broncos at 13-2-1.) As a result, both the Bengals and the Broncos have better odds of being the No. 1 seed than they do of being No. 2 or No. 3. And while they are currently No. 3, the Patriots' odds of ending at No. 2 are higher than the odds of either Denver or Cincinnati being No. 2.

    On the site's playoff odds page, the Pats are currently projected to finish with the second seed in 38.3 percent of simulations, narrowly ahead of their 35.0 percent chance of claiming the third seed.  The numbers still favor New England's chances of earning a first-round bye for the sixth consecutive season, but unless the Patriots sweep their final four games, the AFC playoffs are no longer likely to go through Foxborough.

    The Week 16 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Denver Broncos will also have implications for whether the Pats can earn the top seed.  Denver is currently slated to win home-field advantage if it wins out, but a Bengals win would put New England back in the driver's seat.  At the moment, though, Patriots fans should rent out Terrible Towels given that the Pittsburgh Steelers face both teams over the next two weeks.

Latest Injury News

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    Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

    Rob Gronkowski

    It looks like the Patriots will be without their star tight end for another week, as Gronkowski again missed practice on Wednesday.  New England ruled him out on the Friday before the Eagles game, which would suggest that Gronk was not particularly close to suiting up in Week 13.  So when figuring out when he will return, it's important to track not just when Gronk returns to practice but also when the Patriots come close to making a game-time decision on their All-Pro tight end.

    Granted, Gronk is a special case, and the Patriots may have a predetermined amount of time they plan on keeping him sidelined.  The ideal scenario would see New England remain in contention for home-field advantage while Gronkowski recuperates his way back to full health.  However, if the Pats drop their third straight game, perhaps they will at least consider pulling the safety pin on Gronk.

    Dont'a Hightower

    Hightower's knee sprain does not appear catastrophic given that he practiced last week on a limited basis.  The linebacker again appeared as a limited participant on this week's injury report, and a full week of practice would seemingly give him a chance to be ready for Sunday night.

    Of course, Hightower's availability is slightly less pressing with Jamie Collins' return to the lineup.  While Collins did not bear a typical every-down workload in his first game in over a month, his presence on the majority of snaps gives New England a reason to wait until Hightower is totally healthy.  Thus, while Hightower might be able to physically make it through this game, the prudent measure might be to delay his return one more week and lean on the front seven's depth for another week.

    Patrick Chung

    The starting safety was this week's biggest surprise on the injury report.  According to Pro Football Focus' snap counts, Chung played all 63 defensive snaps against Philadelphia, never appearing to suffer any injury.  However, he did not practice on Wednesday and was listed with a foot injury, putting Chung's status in doubt for Sunday.

    The Pats do have excellent safety depth, and either Jordan Richards or Tavon Wilson would replace Chung's box safety role.  However, the Pats have leaned on three- and four-safety sub-packages the past month with the lack of depth at cornerback, and Chung has proved steady in coverage on tight ends throughout the season.  Unless third corner Justin Coleman can return, expect either Wilson or Richards to earn an every-down role against Houston if Chung is sidelined.

    Texans' Injury Status

    Sometimes, moving up the standings simply requires a team to stay healthier than its deteriorating opposition.  The Texans have had nice luck healthwise since the season-ending injury to star running back Arian Foster and currently have just four players who were limited participants—Jadeveon Clowney, Derek Newton, Johnathan Joseph and J.J. Watt. 

    All four players were also on last week's injury report and suited up regardless, so it would be a big surprise if any of those starters missed this week's game.  New England won't have to deal with the dynamic Foster, but the Texans should otherwise be at full strength in their attempt to pull off the upset.

Key Matchups

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    Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

    Marcus Cannon vs. J.J. Watt

    So, this is slightly suboptimal for the Patriots.  Cannon won't be asked to face the NFL's best defender (and perhaps its best player) on his own, but given how the Texans have deployed Watt this season, generally rushing him from a wide technique on the defensive left side, New England's right tackle figures to face Watt on the majority of snaps.

    Pass protection might not be the most concerning aspect of this matchup, as the Pats will surely chip and double Watt the entire game, especially in obvious passing situations.  However, the depleted passing corps needs a steady running game to alleviate the pressure, and here is where Watt can wreck a game plan.  According to Pro Football Focus, Watt has 27 run stops on the season, the league's highest total among 3-4 defensive ends.

    Maintaining offensive balance is essential for New England right now, as the Pats ran the ball reasonably well versus Philadelphia but had to abandon the ground game because of game situation.  Assuming New England can stay within shouting distance the entire time this week, containing Watt in the running game is an even tougher and more important assignment than keeping him away from Brady.

    Malcolm Butler vs. DeAndre Hopkins

    If Watt is the clear central focus for the Patriots offense, Hopkins presents an equally obvious riddle for defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and Belichick to solve on the defensive side.  Few offenses are as reliant on a non-quarterback as the Texans, who possess arguably the league's most uninspiring offensive personnel outside of their incandescent wide receiver.

    On the season, Hopkins has an astounding 152 targets, trailing only the Atlanta FalconsJulio Jones.  That puts Hopkins on pace for 203 targets, which would rank as the seventh-highest total since the 1970 merger.  With no other Houston player exceeding 76 targets, it's obvious who the Patriots will work to eliminate from the Texans offense.

    When the other team has such a clear top target, Belichick has typically placed Butler on that player and used Devin McCourty for safety help over the top.  Though the likes of Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. have managed to spring some big plays, New England has been able to contain the league's best receivers on a down-to-down basis using this strategy.  Hopkins will still make a splash, but the Pats will count it as a win if Brian Hoyer can't connect with his best receiver when it matters most.

    Danny Amendola vs. Kareem Jackson

    Amendola fared well in his return to the lineup against the Eagles, posting 62 yards and a touchdown on seven catches.  This week, the veteran slot receiver should face a winnable matchup against Jackson, who has flopped since signing a four-year, $34 million deal in the offseason.

    In fairness to Jackson, much of his disappointing season has stemmed from missing six weeks with an ankle injury.  Since his return two weeks ago, the Texans have largely utilized Jackson in the slot, playing him inside on 42 of his 58 snaps in coverage, per PFF's charting.

    That's not his natural position after playing on the perimeter his first five seasons in the league.  Amendola has thrived with free releases off the line of scrimmage since becoming the primary wide receiver following Julian Edelman's injury, and he should again be a focal point of New England's offensive game plan.

Matchup X-Factors

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Patriots X-Factor of the Week: LeGarrette Blount

    After three consecutive games with fewer than four yards per carry, Blount was quietly effective against Philadelphia last week.  New England's top early-down back carried the ball 13 times for 54 yards (4.2 yards per attempt) and generally displayed his usual combination of power and surprising wiggle in keeping the offense balanced throughout the first half.

    However, with the Patriots falling so far behind, Blount received just three carries after halftime.  If Gronkowski does not return for this game, the Patriots can't afford to force Brady to drop back 60 times like last week.  One way to protect the shoddy offensive line in pass protection is to get it moving forward, and in its current state, New England's offense would probably be at its best with a roughly equal run-pass ratio.

    Even with their defensive surge over the past two months, the Texans have struggled against the run, ranking 19th in run defense by Football Outsiders' DVOA metric.  If conventional stats are more your flavor, Houston has allowed 4.4 yards per carry, which ranks 25th.  If the Pats can keep Blount involved for the full 60 minutes this week, they should be able to reap the rewards.

    Texans X-Factor of the Week: Jadeveon Clowney

    Remember this guy?  After a bust of a rookie season, the former top overall pick has quietly bounced back in 2015.  Though Clowney has just 2.5 sacks on the season, that doesn't quite highlight his impact.  With 24 total pressures, third-most on the team behind Watt and Whitney Mercilus, Clowney has given Houston the pass-rushing depth it has lacked the past few seasons.

    More importantly, he has done so while rushing from the inside on a large percentage of his snaps, a big change from when he was a pure defensive end at South Carolina.  Most 3-techniques don't have the first-step explosiveness or length of Clowney.  While he is still learning the nuances of playing inside, Clowney's sheer physical tools make him a challenge for interior offensive linemen.

    The Patriots can't double-team everyone on the defensive line, and we know Watt is going to receive special attention.  If a guard or center Bryan Stork needs to handle Clowney one-on-one for the majority of New England's passing snaps, the outcome of that matchup could have an underrated impact on the final score.

Prediction: Patriots 28, Texans 24

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    The Patriots have not dropped three in a row since 2002, and this two-game losing streak doesn't feel particularly apocalyptic.  Between injuries and uncharacteristic special teams gaffes, the Patriots didn't necessarily play poorly against Denver or Philadelphia, but their typically stellar situational execution has been conspicuously missing.

    While the Texans have two transcendent talents who will make big plays, New England possesses the edge outside of Watt and Hopkins.  The Pats rarely allow stars to single-handedly wreck games, which will place significant pressure on the rest of the Texans' mediocre talent base to play above expectations.

    Still, the Patriots are in no position to take any team for granted.  Whether or not they have Gronkowski or Hightower, the Pats need to eliminate the prolonged lapses that have cost them two games.  Houston has been a fairly reliable team at home, posting a 4-2 record and never losing by more than one possession.  It's safe to assume the Pats will find themselves in another second-half dogfight this Sunday night.

    Ultimately, bouncing back from adversity has always been a strong point of the Brady-Belichick Patriots.  With questions beginning to swirl about, expect the undermanned Pats to have just enough juice to pull out a much-needed win.

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