The last time the Patriots and Texans met, a trip to the AFC Championship Game was on the line. The teams had each finished the regular season with a 12-4 mark, but the Patriots earned the AFC’s No. 2 seed by virtue of a regular-season win against Houston.
The divisional round game turned out not to be much of a contest, as the Patriots coasted past the Texans, a game that could now be looked at as the start of a slippery slope for Houston (some might argue that the Week 14 regular-season matchup actually was the beginning; since that time, the Texans are 3-13).
The Texans narrowly earned wins in each of their first two games this season, but it’s been a tough go since that time. They’ve dropped nine straight games, including a 13-6 loss in Week 12 to the Jaguars that means the Texans have the AFC’s worst record (2-9) and are all of a sudden in the mix for the top pick in next year’s draft.
Starting quarterback Matt Schaub, who signed a lucrative extension in September 2012, has been benched in favor of former undrafted rookie Case Keenum, and the team’s most notable offseason acquisition, safety Ed Reed, was released just a few weeks ago. Starting running back Arian Foster is on injured reserve, as is star linebacker Brian Cushing.
But while little has gone right for the Texans this season, they still have a collection of unique individual talents that pose a challenge for any opponent.
Below is our weekly primer:
Record: 2-9 (t-3rd in AFC South)
Head coach: Gary Kubiak (8th season)
Offensive coordinator: Rick Dennison
Defensive coordinator: Wade Phillips
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, OFFENSE
1. WR Andre Johnson Despite playing in a run-heavy offense and with inconsistent quarterbacking, Johnson continues to be one of the most productive receivers in all of football. He already has 1,002 yards this season, good for fourth in the NFL. He’s 6-foot-3, 220 pounds with the speed to stretch the field vertically, though he’s a phenomenal route runner who can impact the short and intermediate passing game as well. This quiet superstar has shown no signs of aging at 32, and expect him to be the focal point for the Patriots defense this week. He’s seemingly developed quick chemistry with Keenum under center.
2. LT Duane Brown 2013 hasn’t been his most dominant year, but when evaluating left tackles around the NFL, the start of the conversation often involves Brown. He’s a terrific athlete that is a precise fit in Houston’s zone blocking scheme, and he’s powerful and quick enough to handle edge rushers. Brown’s standout play earned him a hefty raise and new contract last August, as he’s set to stay with the Texans through the 2018 season.
3. QB Case Keenum A wildly-popular player in the Houston area during his time in college at the University of Houston, Keenum went undrafted in 2012 after setting the NCAA records for most career passing yards and touchdowns. He took over for a struggling Schaub earlier this season and has done well to hold his own. He’s thrown just two interceptions compared to eight touchdown passes in five games played, and though he may not be the long-term starter for Houston at quarterback, he’s given the Texans a shot of life at the position when they needed it.
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, DEFENSE
1. DE J.J. Watt Watt is on pace for “only” 15 sacks this season, though don’t think for a second that his play has dipped at all after an unbelievable 2012 campaign that earned him defensive player of the year honors. He’s been a disruptive force again for the Texans that can impact the game in innumerable ways. He’s a pass-rushing nightmare for offensive linemen to block and he makes his share of plays in the running game as well. Watt will be used all over the defensive line, and his unique length and explosion make him difficult to account for on each snap.
2. DE Antonio Smith Much of the attention along the defensive line is -- deservedly so -- paid to Watt, but Smith works in tandem with Watt to form a disruptive duo. What makes him so difficult to block is a similar length to what Watt presents. Smith stands at 6-4 and 290 pounds with the frame to maneuver through and around tackles or interior line players. He’s capable against the run but is at his best rushing the passer, where he has five sacks this season.
3. CB Jonathan Joseph The Texans paid big to land Joseph as a free agent during the 2011 offseason, and the 29-year-old remains a capable cover corner who can help neutralize an opponent’s top wideout. He has just one interception this season, but Joseph is still the type of defensive back who can alter the game in the secondary.
OTHER NOTES: The Texans have just four interceptions this season, and no player has more than one interception. ... In place of Foster, the Texans originally turned to Ben Tate as their primary ball carrier, though he was limited to 1 yard on seven carries this past Sunday. Dennis Johnson wound up leading the team in rushing in Week 12. ... Head coach Gary Kubiak collapsed at halftime of a recent game, and since his return he has worked from the coaching booth. It is unclear if he will be back on the sidelines this week. ... Tight end Owen Daniels previously was placed on the injured reserve list with the designation to return. Week 13 is the final week that he is ineligible to play. ... Punter Shane Lechler, formerly of the Raiders, is fifth in the NFL with a 48.3 gross average.