Thursday, January 10, 2013

Patriots vs. Texans Preview

Patriots/Texans -- it doesn't have the ring of Patriots/Steelers or Patriots/Broncos... at least not yet.  But they are developing a history, right before our eyes.  One month ago, they were the 11-1 and 9-3 AFC big boys, when they met in Foxboro.  Unfortunately for Houston, they became the latest contenders to be exposed as pretenders to the throne.

However, that was then, this is now.  Given that the teams played to recently, it should be easy to figure out if enough has changed for each team to expect a different outcome.  On December 10, the Patriots whupped the Texans, 42-14, in a game where the blowout score very accurately indicated the differences between the teams on that day.  So Houston has a lot of ground to make up; question is, can they possibly turn-around a 28-point deficit?  The answer might surprise you.

1. The Game Is Currently Tied

Even though the Patriots won the first game by 28 points, and controlled it from very early on, they don't get to carry those points over.  It is an oft-repeated point, but in this case, it applies more than most weeks.  This is a brand new game, and though some themes carry forward, many breaks went the Patriots way last time, and they could just as easily go the Texans way this weekend.

Last time, the Texans were completely unprepared for the intensity of what was the franchise's first big game.  And when the Patriots leaped out to a big lead, Houston had no idea how to come back and had no confidence they could.  But that game is now behind them, and the coaches and players in Houston understand what big games are like.  And they showed they know how to win a big game, by winning their first playoff game last week, even when they did not play their best.

But at this exact moment, the teams are even; the game is tied, 0-0, with 15:00 left in the first quarter.  And don't expect it to be 21-0 in less than 19-minutes in like last time.

2.  Patriots Improvements

Tight end Rob Gronkowski did not play in the first game, and yet the Texans had few answers for the Patriots fast-break offense.  With Gronkowski back, Houston will have to pick their poison among three receivers -- they'll have to single-cover Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, or Wes Welker.  Oh, and they will need to figure out better coverage for Brandon Lloyd, too, since he finished with 7 catches for 89 yards and a touchdown.

Additionally, a vastly improved Jermaine Cunningham returns, which further solidifies the rotation on both sides of the outside defensive line.  Rob Ninkovich is limping with a hip injury, but both Cunningham and Trevor Scott will keep Ninkovich fresh and provide outside pressure (though neither does as well against the run).  On the other side, Chandler Jones has made big plays the last few weeks, and fellow rookie Justin Francis came out of nowhere to notch three sacks in the last game.

Suffice it to say the Patriots will be improved.  They also got rest for many of the players dinged up during the season, so expect them to be at the top of their game health-wise.

3. Texans Improvements

The Texans did not return any significant players, but they can expect two improvements over the December game.

First, experience is key, and they know better how to prepare and play a game of this magnitude.  None of the players had participated in anything close to the December game, and one should reasonably expect them to be much better prepared this time.

Second, most of the breaks went against the Texans last time.  The Patriots recovered their own fumbles on two of their touchdown drives, they got an interception when Matt Schaub could have tied the game at 7-7, and they had a questionable pass interference penalty extend another drive that ended with a touchdown.  Not saying the Patriots didn't earn the win, but preparation, breaks, and momentum mostly explain the lop-sided final score.

4.  Likely Changes in Strategy

Given the 42-14 final score, the Patriots won't likely change a lot for this game.  On defense, expect them to bottle up the run with their stout defensive line, and double-cover receiver Andre Johnson, thus daring Matt Schaub to beat them with other players.  On offense, Gronkowski will get a lot of attention, especially early on, before anyone knows how effective he will be after the lay-off.  That should be when they target Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd to try for another early lead.

For the Texans, expect them to mix in more blitz packages to disrupt the timing of the Patriots offense.  Wade Phillips isn't really comfortable with this, but head coach Gary Kubiak will insist on going all-out.  And on offense, the Texans will likely use mid-range passes to exploit the pass-coverage deficiencies of the Patriots linebackers.  Watch for tight ends Owen Daniels and also for running back Arian Foster out of the backfield.

5.  Quick Hits:

A)  Kicker Stephen Gostkowski didn't attempt a field goal in the first game, but he was mired in his worst streak of the season, having made only 67% of his attempts in the previous three games.  However, Gostkowski is 5 for 5 since then, so it appears he shook off his case of the "yips."

B)  Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips needs to mix up his defense to slow down Tom Brady.  The Patriots haven't lost to a Wade Phillips defense in over 7 years, and Brady's average game is impressive: 26 of 44 for 321 yards, 4 touchdowns, 1 interception, a 102.6 QB rating, and 2 sacks for 9 yards.  Oh, and Phillips' teams haven't intercepted a Brady pass since January 14, 2007.

C)  For the second straight time, weather will not be a factor.  It was 59-degrees at kickoff on December 10 (with some light rain), and it's supposed to be 45-degrees with no precipitation and very little wind this Sunday.

D)  The Texans have a diverse enough offense to keep up with the Patriots, but they have to stay patient.  The Patriots will stack up the run, but that should open up the short- and intermediate-passing game, which is where Houston has to attack.  But they can't start chucking it down the field, their quarterback isn't accurate enough and they don't have enough deep threats to make that work consistently.

E)  The Patriots rushing attack was an underplayed factor in the first game.  They went for 130 yards and averaged 3.9 yards a carry.  And that was without Gronkowski, one of the best blocking tight ends in the league.  When he's on the field, the Patriots can switch from pass to run and vice versa at will -- and that should get them even more yards per carry on Sunday.

6.  How Will It Play Out?

Given all those factors, it's unlikely that enough has changed in the last 31 days to indicate a Houston win.  They could win, but no matter the outcome, it should be a lot closer.  The Texans should not be overwhelmed this time, the breaks will probably be more even, and if the game stays competitive, Houston will focus on their running game to keep the number of possessions lower and more manageable.

So Houston can win the game.  But in the end, the Patriots should win it.  Houston couldn't slow down the Pats offense without Gronkowski, and everyone in the NFL knows that he is a match-up nightmare and one of the great difference-makers in the league.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  12-4 & 0-0!

1 comment:

  1. Can't believe you didn't mention that Brady is 16-6 in playoff games. Montana also has 16 wins. With a win this week, Brady will hold the all time record. They aren't losing this game.