In Week 14, the Patriots dismantled the Texans 42-14 on Monday Night Football, the start of a 1-3 stretch to finish the season for Houston.
The Texans missed pass-rush specialist Brooks Reed in that game, sacking Tom Brady only once, while cornerback Johnathan Joseph (groin injury) and middle linebacker Bradie James (hamstring injury) played at less than full strength.
Will the return of Reed and relative health of Joseph and James be enough to change the result, or will the Patriots (with Rob Gronkowski added to the mix) roll again? The answer, as it usually does, lies in the ability to disrupt New England’s passing game.
Here are three areas to watch for on Sunday:
1. How will the Texans’ defense pressure Brady? Houston entered Week 14 with the highest blitz percentage (43.9 percent) and lowest Total QBR allowed (22.1) when sending at least five rushers. The Texans sent extra rushers on over half of Brady’s dropbacks, but Brady finished 13-of-19 for 148 yards and three touchdowns on those plays. More importantly, Brady was sacked only once, a testament to New England’s ability to pick up the pressure and buy Brady time. In the four games since Brady picked the Texans apart, Houston’s defense has turned up the heat, sending extra rushers on 54.5 percent of opponents’ dropbacks. Brady has a plus-20 TD-Int differential against added pressure, and he is the only quarterback to throw 20 touchdowns in a season against extra rushers in the last five years. The situation is reminiscent of the Patriots' 2010 divisional playoff loss to the Jets, in that Brady had mastered their blitz (8-of-13, 199 yards, 3 TDs) during the last regular-season meeting only weeks before a playoff rematch. The Jets used the threat of pressure as a decoy in the playoffs, sending extra pressure on just 6-of-50 dropbacks in the playoffs (4-of-5, 51 yards, sack) and disrupting Brady’s timing by dropping defenders in coverage. The Texans are not well suited to playing from behind, so the way Houston pressures Brady will be a crucial angle to watch.
2. Bill Belichick is known for his ability to take away the main strength of an opposing offense, and that strength for Houston is Arian Foster. Last week against the Bengals, Foster had a career-high 40 touches with 174 yards from scrimmage and the only Houston touchdown of the game. Foster joined Jamaal Charles as the second back of the season to record 140 rushing yards and 30 receiving yards in a game. Foster’s rushing prowess is well known, but the game highlighted another aspect to keep an eye on. Foster caught all of his season-high eight targets in the game, serving as Matt Schaub’s safety valve in passing situations. Belichick’s game plan will focus on Foster, as Schaub’s ability to beat the Patriots with a neutralized running game is questionable. Schaub has averaged 6.3 yards per attempt with one touchdown and three interceptions in his last five games without using a play-action fake, connecting for one 30+ yard pass play.
3. The Texans defense has generally covered tight ends well this season, ranking second in the league with 5.6 yards per attempt allowed and a league-low 52.5 completion percentage. While those rates are excellent, Houston has allowed 11 receiving touchdowns by tight ends, tied with the Broncos for the most in the league. Even more troubling for the Texans is the success Brady had in the previous meeting without Gronkowski, connecting eight times with Aaron Hernandez, twice for touchdowns. Texans strong safety Glover Quin was responsible for shutting down Jermaine Gresham last week (though Gresham did have two critical drops), but he can’t cover both Hernandez and Gronkowski.