It was December 1, 2019, less than 12 months ago. On that Sunday evening, the Houston Texans defeated the New England Patriots by a score of 28-22, in a game where the final score was not indicative of how lopsided the win was. The Patriots took advantage of a Charmin-soft prevent defense by the Texans to make the final score much closer than the game played.
This was the high water mark of the Bill O'Brien Era. We said it five minutes after the game ended, and obviously, in retrospect, nothing has happened in the last year that would displace O'Brien's finally defeating his former boss after five previous tries. Walking from the press box elevator down to the studio where I host the Texans' postgame show, the west lobby of the building was the loudest I'd ever heard it. Jubilant fans were streaming down the escalators, hollering at the top of their lungs, banging on railings, stomping on the steps. It had NEVER been like this EVER during Bill O'Brien's reign.
"Maybe this was the breakthrough game!" I thought. Uh, maybe not.
The following week, the lowly Denver Broncos came in and took a 38-3 lead in NRG Stadium, and mopped the floor with the Texans by an equally deceptive final score of 38-24. O'Brien's honeymoon lasted all of seven days. Literally, less than a week after conquering the king of the sport, O'Brien was shouting down paying fans on his way to the locker room at halftime:
Since that win over the Patriots in Week 13 of last season, a LOT has changed, on both sides. As the Patriots are set to come to town this weekend for a Week 11 matchup, let's dig into this game, which is as much about the drama surrounding both teams in 2020, as it is an actual game of football. Here are four things to watch for...
4. Basically, watch for NOTHING you saw last season
So, what's changed since this matchup last season? Well, get comfy. For one thing, both team's records are drastically different. After that Week 13 tussle in 2019, the Patriots were still 10-2, despite the loss, and the Texans moved to 8-4 on the season. Now, the Patriots have climbed back to 4-5 after a 2-5 start, and the Texans are a 2-7 disaster. Tom Brady has been replaced by Cam Newton, Bill O'Brien has been replaced by Romeo Crennel, and DeAndre Hopkins has been replaced by a group of individuals who haven't come remotely close to actually replacing him. In 2019, this matchup was appropriately in primetime on Sunday night. This one, in 2020, is, equally appropriately, at noon on Sunday afternoon with about a half dozen other games going on at the same time. These two teams feel nothing like they did a year ago, and if when they play again in 2021 (the AFC South teams all play AFC East teams next year), they'll feel different again.
3. Jack Easterby
One holdover from last year is the mysterious presence of Jack Easterby, the former character coach for the Patriots, who has worked his way up to Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the Texans. Since Easterby's arrival in April of 2019, the Texans have fired two general managers, a head coach, their salary cap expert, their director of team development, and their VP of communications. People are naturally drawing a connection to Easterby in these decisions, and if he ever spoke publicly, he could refute that (if indeed it's not true). The fear among Texans fans is that Easterby is angling to become the general manager himself. Thankfully, this notion was squashed by team president Jamey Rootes on a conference call with season ticket holders on Wednesday. When it was brought up to Rootes that Bill Belichick himself said Easterby is "not a personnel guy", here's what the Texans' team president had to say:
"You’re right," Rootes said in response to a question that pointed out Belichick's quote. "Jack would be the first person to tell you he’s not a personnel guy. Jack will not be the general manager of the Houston Texans. Jack realizes we need personnel expertise to put together the best football team. He doesn’t have enough time in the day. He's working on sports science, working on nutrition. Spread the word. Jack has no intentions of being the general manager."
Consider the word spread, Jamey!
2. Cam Newton, career resurgence coming?
It's been a strange year for Newton, who signed with the Patriots for one year for a few million bucks (relative peanuts in today's NFL for a starting QB), and was solid enough through the first three games, leading the Pats to a 2-1 record with a 68 percent completion rate and four rushing touchdowns. Then, Newton tested positive for COVID-19, and the Patriots proceeded to lose four in a row, the last three with Newton under center. In those three games, he threw no TD passes, and threw five picks, with an abysmal 50.1 passer rating. After falling behind by two scores to the winless Jets two weeks ago, Newton has found his groove, though, leading the Patriots to a comeback win in that Jets game, and then an impressive victory over the Ravens in the rain a week ago. These are a big seven games coming up for Newton, who could be in line for a big payday if he can close the season strong. Sunday should help in that effort, because....
1. Texans run defense
....yeah, it stinks. Stinks bad. Real bad. Like rancid, pungent, horrific. The Texans get asked the same question every week about their run defense, and we get the same tired answers — "oh, we need better gap integrity" ... "oh, guys are trying TOO HARD to make big plays instead of focusing on their assignment" ... blah, blah, blah. The truth is the Texans have very few serviceable players on the defensive side of the ball, and almost nobody in the front seven is having even a mediocre season, let alone a good season. This matchup on Sunday is a nightmare for the Texans. The Patriots rush for the third most yards per game in the NFL (161.1), the Texans give up the MOST yards per game on the ground in the NFL (167.4).
SPREAD: Texans +2.5
PREDICTION: Patriots 27, Texans 17
I think instead of watching this game on Sunday, I am just going to watch this fun little YouTube snippet on a loop for four hours. Better times....