After consecutive prime-time games, the Patriots will take the field at 1 p.m. ET for the first time in more than a month when they travel to take on the 2-9 Houston Texans.
The buzz and buildup surrounding this game doesn't mirror that which preceded the Panthers and Broncos contests, but the outcome is no less important for the Patriots.
Their schedule for the rest of the way doesn't include any games against teams with a winning record, and though the Patriots themselves won't be talking about it any time soon, wins over opponents that they are capable of beating will add up as the playoff seeding picture comes into focus.
Against Houston, the Patriots will look to extend the Texans' losing streak to 10 games and push them closer to the top overall pick in the upcoming draft. That's a far way from this time last year when the Texans were a trendy pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl after a hot start.
Much has changed since that time, and now the Texans are looking to salvage what's left of their season while the Patriots hope to string wins together as they close in on another AFC East title.
Below is what we'll be watching for this Sunday:
1. Ridley's role. After fumbling in his third straight game last Sunday, Stevan Ridley was benched for three-plus quarters. There's little doubt that Ridley is the Patriots' most talented rusher, but the ball security concerns are impossible to ignore. Head coach Bill Belichick has long preached that the most important part of a running back's job is protecting the football, so it will be interesting to see what role Ridley plays this Sunday. Quarterback Tom Brady said early in the week that the team needs Ridley going forward, but he'll need to prove first that he can be trusted with the ball in his hands.
2. Blocking Watt. Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is, according to Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, as disruptive a defensive player as there is in the NFL today. It's hard to argue with that assertion, and McDaniels also noted that every offensive lineman will be in some way responsible to help block Watt, who is on pace for a 15-sack season. The Patriots were able to contain Watt for the most part during a regular-season matchup in 2012, and they'll need to find ways to minimize his impact as a behind the line of scrimmage run defender and pass-rusher.
3. Secondary injuries. The Patriots are dealing with a number of injury issues right now -- as they have all season -- especially in the secondary. Four cornerbacks, Aqib Talib (hip), Alfonzo Dennard (knee), Kyle Arrington (groin) and Marquice Cole (shin), are banged up, while safety Steve Gregory has missed two straight games due to a thumb issue. Dennard missed Thursday's practice before returning to the field on Friday, though none of their statuses for Sunday is exactly clear at this time. Given that the Patriots waived rookie cornerback Justin Green on Tuesday, it's possible they feel their injured cornerbacks have a good shot to play on Sunday.
4. Ground game defense. The Broncos had their way with the Patriots on the ground, finishing with 280 yards on 48 carries. The Texans have traditionally been a strong running team, though a season-ending injury to Arian Foster and cracked ribs for fill-in starter Ben Tate have limited the effectiveness of the ground game this season. The Texans are a dedicated zone-blocking scheme run offense that puts stress on defensive linemen to be able to work laterally down the line and not be caught out of position in their gaps. The Patriots will need to fortify their run defense down the stretch, and Sunday is a good test in Houston.
5. Breaking a streak. The Patriots haven't won a game away from Gillette Stadium since September, and a loss to Houston would give them their first four-game road losing streak since 2000. Coming off of an emotional win, there is always the need to make sure that focus doesn't slip and that the opponent is not overlooked. The Patriots cannot afford to start slow and find themselves having to play catch-up to a team they are fully capable of defeating. Winning is never easy in the NFL, however, and the Patriots need to find a way to get back on track away from home and secure their ninth win of the season.