FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The top New England Patriots storylines of the week have been well-documented: tight end Rob Gronkowski (groin) and receivers Danny Amendola (concussion) and Chris Hogan (knee) all saying they’re good to go for Sunday’s game; cornerback Malcolm Butler addressing his role reduction; the Patriots’ protection vs. the Texans’ pass rush as a key matchup; running back Rex Burkhead (ribs) being ruled out and starting right tackle Marcus Cannon (concussion) unlikely to play. Now let’s address a few under-the-radar areas leading into Sunday’s home game against the Houston Texans:
Conditioning could be key. A projected temperature of 84 degrees at kickoff had meteorologist Eric Fisher of WBZ-TV saying, “It’s going to feel like July or August out there.” For context, the temperature for the Week 3 afternoon home game in 2015 against the Jaguars was 68 degrees. Last year’s Week 3 game, played at night against Houston, was 68 at kickoff. The team’s conditioning could be tested in warmer conditions. As head coach Bill Belichick has said when the team runs hills in training camp, the idea is to "put it in the bank" for when it's needed. A day such as Sunday could be a time when that "conditioning" bank account is called upon.
Belichick likes offensive tackle depth: With Cannon ailing this week, Belichick was asked about top backups Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle, and he said Fleming’s approach and work ethic have earned his respect and that Waddle had his best training camp. When adding starting left tackle Nate Solder, Belichick said, “I feel like we have pretty good depth at tackle. It’s good competition with really all four of those guys.”
Third tight end integrated into the mix: With rookie Jacob Hollister active in last Sunday's victory over the Saints, the Patriots called on the three-tight-end package 13 times and opened the game with it (empty set). That was a big breakthrough for Hollister, an undrafted free agent from Wyoming, who earned a black jersey as a practice player of the week as one of three who most helped the team prepare in the days leading up to the win. Hollister, it turns out, played the role of Saints tight end Coby Fleener in practice. With Gronkowski potentially playing a limited number of snaps because of his less-than-100-percent groin, the tight-end depth could be important again.
Parry assigned as referee: John Parry, whom Patriots fans might remember from Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants (early safety call against Tom Brady), will work the game. Through two weeks, his crew has averaged 19 penalties per game, which is the third-highest total this season, though with a small sample.
Stat of the week: This marks just the second time that a quarterback who led his team to the national title in college the previous season (Deshaun Watson) faces off against a quarterback who led his team to a Super Bowl victory the prior season (Brady). The first time came in 2011, when Cam Newton (Panthers) squared off against Aaron Rodgers (Packers).
Quote of the week: “I haven’t been performing at the level that I should be performing at. … There’s no excuses.” -- cornerback Butler, on assuming a lesser role in last week’s game plan.
Prediction: The Texans have the defensive personnel to slow the Patriots, specifically with a good pass rush up the middle when they bring ends Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus over center David Andrews. But in the end, the Patriots will have too much firepower, as they have never lost to a rookie quarterback at home under Bill Belichick (8-0). Although the initial instinct was to project a lower-scoring game, I’m going off the board a bit because of Watson’s big-play ability and the Patriots’ vulnerability in that area at times. Patriots 30, Texans 24.