For the Texans, there's always a little more juice around these Patriots games, even if they have yet to defeat them in Bill O'Brien's run as head coach here. Hell, maybe it's BECAUSE of that this time around, not in spite of it. For this Sunday, the prime time kickoff start adds another level of heat, but this one is probably a little more personal for both sides, after what all transpired this past summer.
To reset, in early June the Texans fired their general manager Brian Gaine. Shortly thereafter, the rumor mill began churning with the smoke centering around Bill Belichick's right hand man (and longtime friend of Bill O'Brien), Nick Caserio, as the target of the Texans' search for a new GM. The chase for Caserio (and the firing of Gaine, for that matter) appeared to be anything but coincidental, considering Texans' EVP of Team Development Jack Easterby, a former "character coach" with the Patriots, was in Foxborough the previous week for the team's Super Bowl ring ceremony.
Eventually, the chase for Caserio ended with the Patriots filing tampering charges against the Texans, and ultimately withdrawing them after the Texans promised to back off of their pursuit of Caserio. Now, Caserio's contract is up next spring, so we will see what happens then. For now, this intriguing Week 13 matchup has just a little more juice than normal, given the Caserio stuff.
As you can imagine, personnel, team building philosophy, and such were a big topic with O'Brien and the media earlier this week....
So let's start there in the things we are watching for on Sunday night, as the Patriots come to NRG Stadium to try to build on their 10-1 record. The Texans are trying to maintain control of the AFC South and move to 8-4 on the season. Here we go....
4. Nick Caserio's whereabouts
I have to imagine that Caserio is traveling with the team, so if that is the case (let's pretend it is, for now), are Texans employees instructed to handle things any particular way? I mean, Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend is a logical time for old friends to reacquaint and hug each other during warm ups, down on the field. However, when that particular old friend was the centerpiece of a tampering charge from the most evil of NFL empires, do the Texans view O'Brien or Easterby interacting with Caserio in any way as a "no upside" situation? If I were Cal McNair, I would. Honestly, if the Patriots had any balls, they'd agree to a WWE style stipulation where the winner of this game gets the services of Nick Caserio! Maybe even dangle him above the field like a Money In The Bank briefcase during the game. These are the things that I would make happen, if I were made NFL commissioner for a day.
3, Kicking game
The Patriots come into this game as a three-point favorite, so inherently, this is viewed as a game where the winning margin is just a field goal. Logically, there's a great chance that this game comes down to a kick. Well, this is a game with kicking storylines. The Texans' Ka'imi Fairbairn has missed five field goals and five extra points this season. Even in the win over the Colts, one of his successful attempts, a 36 yarder, hit the right upright and went through, so even his makes are not inspiring a ton of confidence. Meanwhile, with All Pro kicker Stephen Gostkowski out for the season, his replacement Nick Folk just went 2 for 4 against Dallas on Sunday, and was out of football for all of 2018, and most of this season, until the Patriots called him a few weeks ago. Then THIS swerve came down late in the week....
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2. Tom vs Time (and vs the Texans' banged up secondary)
In the latest MVP odds, Brady has been hanging on the fringe of all the long shots, with about a dozen or so players in front of him. Truth be told, Brady hasn't performed anywhere close to an MVP level this season. He's on the board because (a) his team is 10-1, and (b) he is Tom F-ing Brady. Statistically, he's been just OK, with 15 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, and a very un Brady-like 88.2 passer rating. He's leading the league in completions and attempts, so his age is not scaring Belichick off of using him, it's just that there's nothing really scary about Brady, other than his reputation right now. In four of his last five games; he's had single game yards-per-attempt of 5.65 or below. For those who need context, Brock Osweiler averaged 5.8 yards per attempt in his one season as a Texan. Just when we underestimate Tom Brady is about the time, he drops 400 yards on you, and this Texans' secondary is ripe for torching with all the injuries and practically zero pass rush, post J.J. Watt, but the Texans will need the Brady of the last month to show up, if they're going to win this game.
1. Deshaun vs Belichick
It was a decent bounce back game for Watson against the Colts, with 19 of 30 pass attempts completed for nearly 300 yards. Truth be told, it was the big plays downfield — 44 and 51 yards to Will Fuller, touchdowns of 35 and 30 yards to DeAndre Hopkins — where Watson got a big chunk of his yardage, but after four games without Fuller where Watson only ATTEMPTED 16 passes more than 15 yards downfield, the shot plays down the field were a welcome sight. The Patriots are massive step up in weight class defensively, especially against the pass, where they are the top rated team in Football Outsiders' DVOA efficiency metric. This game will be a chance for Watson to reestablish his MVP creds for the season's stretch run.
SPREAD: Texans +3
PREDICTION: Texans 19, Patriots 17
SEASON RECORD: 7-4 SU, 5-6 ATS