It was three years ago yesterday the last time the Texans and the Patriots played a regular season game with as much on the line as there will be on Sunday night at NRG Stadium. And dammit, a lot has happened since that fateful Monday night Patriots stomping back in December 2012!
The Texans have turned over like 90 percent of their roster, and endured a 2-14 season, a coaching change, a season of Hard Knocks and the ill-fated Ryan Mallett era. The Patriots have won a Super Bowl, watched Aaron Hernandez go to prison for killing several people (allegedly), endured Deflate-Gate and lived through a brief Ryan Mallett era of their own. In short, we're a long way from that brisk December evening that ended in a smoldering pile of burnt letterman jackets.
Truth be told, this Sunday night's game is the least important of the Texans' four remaining games, merely because the other three are division games and higher up on the tiebreaker rung. In other words, if the football gods told you the Texans will finish 9-7 and you can pick the game they'll lose, you'd be an idiot not to pick this game.
However, don't tell that to the people spending a few hundred bucks per seat with ticket brokers! Texans fans smell a little bit of blood and you know what? It's sort of justified. The Patriots come in here limping a little bit, having lost two in a row, and the Texans' defense has been pretty solid for five weeks, save a quarter and a half last weekend when the Buffalo Bills bullied poor John Simon into submission on the edge in the running game.
The Texans CAN pull off this upset. Will they? Well, let's examine a few components of Sunday's matchup…
4. Prime time Sunday football
I think it's generally accepted nowadays that the Sunday night game has sort of replaced the Monday night game as the "must-watch" game of the week, in large part because the league (and NBC) can flex the schedule later in the season to avoid, say, Matt Schaub taking on Josh McCown. By my count, the veterans on this Texans team who've been lifelong Texans have been part of two of these Sunday night games, both at home — against Green Bay in 2012 and against Indianapolis in 2013. In the former, Aaron Rodgers rained down six TD passes on a then-undefeated Texans squad, and in the latter, Gary Kubiak ended the night in a hospital bed with a mini-stroke. Granted, that's a small sample space, but hopefully some of Bill O'Brien's trademarked toughness will shine through on this stage and the Texans' collective fortune will change.
3. Hopkins versus Butler
If you talk to players who've played for Bill Belichick (and I spend four hours a day on the radio with one), the one thing the Patriots' head coach likes to do is take away the opposition's key weapon. For the Texans, it's not hard to identify who that player is. It's Jaelen Strong…just kidding. I'm making sure you're paying attention! Of course, it's DeAndre Hopkins. The Patriots watched virtually their whole depth chart at cornerback walk in the offseason (Revis, Browner), and decided to elevate Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, who's been pretty good. This should be a fun matchup. I imagine Hopkins's size advantage comes into play on at least a key play or two.
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2. Special teams
Last week, both of these teams were shaky on special teams in their respective losses. The Texans had three penalties and a missed extra point, and the Patriots were beyond shaky. They were abysmal. There was the peculiar onside dropkick Belichick decided to use. There was a blocked punt for a touchdown the Patriots gave up in the final minute of the half. Then they closed it out by allowing a punt return for a touchdown by Darren Sproles. I don't want to say, "The team that wins special teams will win the game," because the Patriots have Tom Brady, who covers up a lot of stink. But the Texans can't win this game if they lose the special teams battle.
1. Bringing the heat on Brady
The Texans are catching Tom Brady at a time when the football gods have encumbered him with about as much on-field adversity as he's seen in his career. (I don't count fighting the Deflate-Gate charges as "on the field.") He will likely be without Rob Gronkowski, and certainly without Julian Edelman and Dion Lewis. Hell, two of his receivers will be guys the Texans cast off at the beginning of the season, Keshawn Martin and Damaris Johnson. But beyond that, Brady's offensive line is a sieve right now compared to how they were playing early in the season. Through the first eight games, the Patriots were allowing pressure on Brady 20 percent of the time. The league average is 27 percent. In the past four games, they've been allowing pressure 36 percent of the time, better than only four other teams in the league. J.J. Watt should feast on this Patriots o-line, if his newly broken left hand isn't an issue.
PREDICTION: Patriots 27, Texans 24
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.