Patriots can't afford to look past Texans

If the NFL season were to end today, the Houston Texans would own the first pick in the 2014 draft.

They’ve slipped to 2-9 after their ninth straight defeat this past Sunday, a 13-6 loss to the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars.

But consider this: A year ago today, the Houston Texans stood at 10-1 and atop the AFC standings.

While the Texans have dealt with injury woes this season that at least rival what the Patriots have endured (star running back Arian Foster and linebacker Brian Cushing lead the way among the Texans on injured reserve), many of the same pieces that contributed to a 12-4 season in 2012 remain in place and will be on the field Sunday for their game against the New England Patriots.

As Bill Belichick noted during his conference call with the media on Tuesday afternoon, the Texans are just a handful of plays from having a decidedly different record.

“You look at the Seattle game, you look at the Oakland game, you can go right down the line; Arizona, that’s another team that’s playing well, Indianapolis,” Belichick said. “They had all those teams right down to the wire and had their chances. They’re a play or two away from, I would say, breaking out and winning a whole bunch of games.”

The Patriots, at 8-3 and in second place in the AFC, have had their own share of close games this season, highlighted by Sunday night’s thrilling overtime win over Denver. And while many of those games have fallen in their favor, Belichick is aware that his own team is a handful of plays away from a far different outlook.

“We’ve been in a lot of games this year that could have gone either way,” he said. “You say if we won all of our close games, our record could be one thing. If we’d [lost] all our close games, our record would be a whole other thing.”

So, while on the surface Sunday may look like a mismatch, the Patriots know there’s no room for taking the Texans lightly.

“I think that the football team looks a lot like last year’s football team,” Belichick said of the Texans. “They’re very, very good on defense. They have a lot of good players. They’re very disruptive up front. They’re fast. Their offensive line is intact and it’s really the same guys they had last year, with the exception of [guard Antoine] Caldwell, but [Brandon] Brooks has obviously taken on a bigger role.”

The Texans have handed the keys of their offense to undrafted rookie Case Keenum, a switch that has resulted, at least from the outside, in what appears to be an improvement in terms of throwing the ball downfield. The offense has struggled on the whole, as starter Matt Schaub was benched and Foster’s absence has been felt, but individual talent is there, led by such players as receiver Andre Johnson and left tackle Duane Brown.

Defensively, the Texans' line features the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in J.J. Watt, whom Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said is “as talented a defensive player as you have to play against.”

“I would say at some point in the game, most every one of our linemen will have to block him,” McDaniels noted.

The words may sound like lip service to those outside the Patriots' organization, but the coaching staff can draw upon experience to remind their players of the importance of treating every game as the most important of the season.

A 2004 Week 16 loss to the Miami Dolphins, a game in which the Patriots entered 12-1 and the Dolphins 2-11, serves as a reminder that records are irrelevant come kickoff.

It is tempting to take a bigger-picture view of the remaining five games of the season, as prognosticators can comfortably forecast five more wins for the Patriots, who don’t face another team that currently has a winning record.

A 13-3 regular-season finish would guarantee the Patriots at least the second seed in the AFC and a coveted first-round bye, if not the top overall seed and home-field advantage.

But the Patriots have to look no further than the Texans as an example of how quickly things can change. Houston slipped from the first to the third seed after stumbling down the stretch last season, sending them on the road to New England in the divisional round of the playoffs, a game the Patriots easily won.

Coming off an emotional (and critical) win against the Broncos, the Patriots have put themselves in a strong position going forward. They’ve endured injuries on both sides of the ball, and the offense is rounding into form after a slow start.

But now isn’t the time for the Patriots to sit back and stare into a crystal ball to forecast the future.

The Patriots already have made it clear: There’s no looking past the Texans this Sunday.