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Keys to the Game presented by Carmax: Pats look to get even in Houston

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The 4-5 Patriots are back in action this Sunday against the 2-7 Houston Texans as New England looks to even their season record and add a third game to their win streak. Houston handled the Patriots last season, contributing to a late-season tail spin that ultimately ended in an early Wild Card round exit for New England.

Now, the new-look Patriots have strung two good wins together as they've locked in on what's working for them and continue to see new young faces emerge on both sides of the ball.

Despite their record, the Texans have fought hard through an impossibly tough schedule that has seen them face the iron of both conferences. Dismissing them as a two-win team would be foolish, and long-time Patriots assistant Romeo Crennel has given the Patriots plenty of problems in his 15 years since leaving the team.

New England is clinging to faint playoff hopes and desperately need a win over the Texans to keep them alive. What do they have to do to get back to .500?

Here are the Keys to the Game presented by Carmax!

Prevent the Big Plays

With three lethal downfield threats and a defense that has been inconsistent against the big passing plays this season, Houston will test the Patriots secondary. Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks lead the way, while veteran Randall Cobb is an experienced inside receiver who can keep the chains moving. It's Fuller and Cooks that pose the biggest threat though.

With Stephon Gilmore missing the last three games, his return would be a big boost for a group that has alternating from picking off passes and getting burned in his absence. The good news is that they were excellent against Baltimore, however Deshaun Watson provides a greater passing threat than Lamar Jackson.

J.C. Jackson has five-straight games with an interception and will be looking to add to that total, as the Texans should be wary of throwing it up in his direction. If Gilmore's back they might not have a choice. Jason McCourty is coming off one of the best performances of the season, along with Jonathan Jones who made some critical plays against the Ravens. Jones' speed will once again be extremely useful.

The Patriots need their secondary to lead the way going forward, with a slate of dangerous quarterbacks coming up who can do damage with both their arm and legs. If they can prevent the big plays and force continued execution, the Texans offense should stay contained.

Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch ahead of the Patriots matchup against the Houston Texans.

Keep on running

For the Patriots, the most tantalizing matchup is the Houston run defense that is giving up more yards and yards-per-attempt than any other defense in the league and ranking dead last in the league in run defense DVOA.

On the flip side, the Patriots rushing attack is gathering steam in recent weeks, led by the explosive Damien Harris (5.5 yards-per-attempt) and clutch Rex Burkhead, who are taking advantage of the wide open holes that the offensive line and blockers are opening up.

Add in Cam Newton's ability to pick up key first downs with his legs and the Patriots ground game is the number one nightmare for the Texans. The formula isn't hard to discern for the 2020 Patriots, their strength is clear and it matches up well with the Texans weakness. They just have to execute like they did against the Ravens depleted front.

If Sony Michel can rejoin the mix, he'll give the Pats even more depth at the position and the ability to keep their backs fresh heading into the critical moments late in the game. How well the Pats run in this game will determine the result. That's who they are this year and if they bring the same kind of physicality that they brought against the Ravens, they should have success and get control of the game.

Finish Watson

The Texans own ground game is banged up, with David Johnson on IR with a concussion and Duke Johnson missing practice time this week with an illness. That will put even more pressure on Deshaun Watson, who was excellent last year against the Patriots with his passing but had negative rushing yardage on four attempts.

That was one of the few things the Patriots did well last season, but Watson is still very much a play-extending threat when he runs in key spots with 48 carries for 233 yards and a touchdown. Houston won't design many plays specifically for Watson to carry the ball, but he's a threat on every down to pick up yards with his legs and the Patriots can take a page from their earlier game plans to keep him in check.

The Patriots defense should be well-versed in facing these kinds of quarterbacks this season, but it seems inevitable that Watson makes some conversions with his legs, he's too good. When the Patriots front has a shot at Watson, they need to get him to the ground.

Continue to evolve

The Patriots have something good going here with two-straight wins. They've showed a dominant run game while their defense has made the critical plays that they needed to, but can they continue to improve and add new dimensions to what they're doing?

That's what they'll need if they're going to navigate the narrow road to the playoffs that might could only afford them one more loss this season.

Harris, Burkhead and Jakobi Meyers have been key playmakers, but those three alone aren't enough. They could use a big performance from another source and there are plenty of options, whether it's Michel, N'Keal Harry or even new tight end Jordan Thomas, who started practicing this week and is an experienced veteran and a big red zone target.

Newton should continue to make strides as well. He's been extremely efficient in recent weeks as well as safe with the ball. Those aspects must continue, but if he can develop a rapport with a new weapon it could take the Patriots offense to a new level.

Eventually a team will take away Meyers and effectively stop the run. How the Patriots counter that with secondary targets could determine the outcome.

Prediction:

The Patriots saw their 2019 season get derailed by Baltimore and then another big nail put into their coffin in Houston. They knocked off the Ravens with their best all-around game of the season and now they will take advantage of the opportunity presented before them against the Texans. They should have all the motivation they need with the chance to even their record. The momentum keeps building, but it will take another clean game that will have to be closed out in the fourth quarter.

Patriots 27, Texans 24

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