Among them: Is this the year he can beat his former boss?
Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s 5-0 record against O’Brien is his best against a former assistant. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Belichick is 10-9 in the regular season and playoffs against his other former assistant coaches, excluding interims, scouts and former players.
O'Brien coached under Belichick in New England for five seasons, working his way up to offensive coordinator. Like many Patriots assistants, O’Brien left when he had an opportunity to be a head coach. Unlike many of the others, O’Brien has worked his way into a stable position, one in which he regularly competes for division titles.
While O’Brien has had success in Houston with three AFC South titles in his first five seasons, he hasn’t found a way to beat Belichick. He'll get his sixth chance on Sunday night (8:20 p.m., NBC).
“When I was there, I was appreciative of the opportunity to be there," O'Brien said. "I was very appreciative of the opportunity to learn in the team meetings or in the staff meetings, or to coach the players that I was able to coach or to work with the coaches I was able to work with. So, I learned a lot. I learned a lot about game planning and personnel and strategy. That was a very important time for me in my coaching career.
“It was probably a place where I learned the most.”
The Texans have lost eight games in a row to the Patriots; Houston's last and only victory over New England came in Week 17 of the 2009 season. The Texans and Patriots have played five times since 2015 and Houston is 0-5, including a loss in the divisional round of the playoffs that ended its 2016 season.
With all the turnover in Belichick's staff and on the Patriots' roster, you’d think there would be a chance for another team -- such as the Texans -- to overtake New England as the top dog in the AFC at some point.
That hasn’t happened. The Patriots have won at least 10 games in each of the past 17 seasons. Why?
“Because of the head coach,” O’Brien said.
“Guys have left because of the success. You have success there, you have a chance to move up the ladder and they do a really good job of developing coaches. Just an excellent job all the way through.”
O'Brien has brought some of his Patriots coworkers with him to Houston. Romeo Crennel, who had stints as a head coach in Cleveland and Kansas City, is the Texans' defensive coordinator. The Texans also hired former Patriots character coach Jack Easterby this offseason to be the executive vice president of team development. Easterby’s presence is felt around the building, especially in helping O’Brien to acclimate new players.
And there could have been more Patriots influence in the front office. After the Texans fired general manager Brian Gaine in June -- the day after the Patriots’ Super Bowl ring ceremony that Easterby attended -- Houston requested an interview with Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio. Instead, the Patriots filed tampering charges against the Texans, forcing owner Cal McNair to release a statement saying the team would no longer pursue Caserio.
Houston still hasn't filled the position. They've used a committee -- which includes O’Brien -- to make personnel decisions this season.
O’Brien said there’s no “hard feelings” on the Texans’ end with how everything played out with Caserio.
“We have a lot of respect for the Patriots,” O’Brien said. “I have a lot of respect for Bill [Belichick]. I'm very grateful to Bill for the opportunities he gave me, and then, obviously, I have a lot of close friends on the staff over there that I worked with."
While O'Brien wants to build the Texans in a Patriots image, there are differences. While Belichick also serves as general manager, O’Brien said his situation is “different” in Houston even though he has more say in personnel than most NFL coaches.
“We have a very, very unique setup here,” O’Brien said. “Very unique. It's not like anybody else in the league. ... But I did learn a lot from Bill relative to strategy and evaluation and all those different things. Relative to that, it's just a whole different setup than what they have in New England. Totally different."
The road to the AFC championship goes through New England (10-1), as it has for nearly every season in the past two decades. The Baltimore Ravens (9-2) are on their heels this season, but the Patriots are still the No. 1 seed in the AFC headed into Week 13. And while the Texans (7-4) are coming off a big division victory over the Indianapolis Colts, they haven’t shown they are among the Super Bowl favorites yet.
Houston had a chance to change that perception in Week 11, but the Texans were blown out 41-7 by the Ravens in Baltimore. It was the most lopsided loss of quarterback Deshaun Watson’s NFL career and made it significantly harder for the Texans to finish with the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the AFC, which would give them a first-round bye in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Any hopes of earning that would have to begin on Sunday night at NRG Stadium. There is some reason for optimism.
Despite the Patriots’ 10-1 record and stellar defense this season, the offense has not been as successful as they were in previous seasons. The Patriots are only averaging 3.4 yards per rush this season, the third-lowest mark in the NFL and on pace to be the lowest since the Tom Brady-Belichick era began in 2001. New England has only scored a touchdown on 48% of its red zone drives this season, which ranks 25th in the NFL and is its worst red zone efficiency since 2003, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
This might be the game that Watson can outscore the Patriots. Watson, who has played well against the Patriots in the past, has also had a lot of success in prime time. He has a Total QBR of 84.7 in his career in prime-time games with 18 touchdown passes and three interceptions. That is the highest Total QBR in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least five prime-time starts since 2006.
“I haven't beaten those guys yet since I've been in the NFL,” wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins said. “And this is a great team.”