After two-straight weeks in the NFC, the Patriots return to their own conference to take on the Houston Texans this Sunday night in front of a national audience. The Patriots haven't lost to the Texans in a decade, beating them eight-straight times, including twice in the playoffs and five times against former offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien as Houston's head coach.
Still, the Texans are perennially a team scratching the surface of being a contender and now, with Deshaun Watson at quarterback and sitting atop the AFC South, they will once again attempt to take the big step that has eluded them since January 2010 -- knocking off the vaunted Patriots with a statement win.
The Patriots have bounced back after their Week 9 loss to the Ravens with wins over the Eagles and Cowboys that were a return to what we saw for most of the first two months of the season -- a dominant defense that led the way for an offense that has struggled to consistently move the ball.
But there are reasons for optimism, not that it takes much to feel positive about a Tom Brady-led attack. This will be the first time all season we'll get a glimpse at the offense that the Patriots will aim for the playoffs with, including left tackle Isaiah Wynn, new receiver Mohamed Sanu and a possibly-rejuvenated Sony Michel.
This game will have important playoff implications for both teams as they jockey for seeding in the AFC. The Patriots grip on the top seed is perilous, with Baltimore just one game behind them and playing the best football in the league. Houston's lead in the AFC South is just one game as well and they'll have their eyes on playing a home game on Wild Card Weekend.
We should learn a lot in this AFC clash as the pupil tries to take the master once again. Here are the Keys to the Starting Lineup for the Patriots to get win number 11!
Gilmore vs. Hopkins
There won't be a better receiver-cornerback matchup this weekend than Stephon Gilmore on DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins has 24 catches for 339 yards and no touchdowns in his winless five games against the Patriots and things will be even harder this time around with Gilmore playing the best football of his career. He's hasn't had much success in two prior games against Gilmore. There's little question how important Hopkins is to the Texans, he's their leading third-down receiver and already has 81 catches on the season for 839 yards and eight touchdowns. If Gilmore eliminates Hopkins like he's eliminated every receiver he's faced this season, it will be the most direct path to shutting down the Texans offense. However, that will put a spotlight on the Will Fuller matchup, as J.C. Jackson or Jason McCourty (if healthy) figures to be the primary man for the job. If Gilmore wants to continue his case for being a defensive MVP candidate, he'll have a golden opportunity by facing Hopkins.
Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 13 matchup against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on Sunday, December 1, 2019.
Convert and Finish on Offense
We know the Patriots have been effective with up-tempo, no-huddle in spots but what else can they hang their hats on? They'll be looking to find out against a Houston defense that is 24th in DVOA, but more importantly 31st on 3rd down and 30th in the red zone. Those weaknesses match up exactly with what the Patriots have struggled with this season, as they're 17th on 3rd down and 25th in the red zone. So what happens when an immobile force meets a movable barrier? The Patriots inability to maintain drives and, more importantly, finish with touchdowns especially when given the ball back on short fields via takeaways, has been the most troubling aspect of the offense. If they're to get on track in those critical areas the Texans should provide a friendly matchup.
No Big Rushing Plays
Despite all the attention on Watson and Hopkins, the Texans have had an effective running combo this season with Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde. Houston ranks tied for 4th in explosive runs (20-plus yards) and are the third-best rushing team on first down. They're also ranked 1st in the league in second-level runs. That kind of explosive ground success can minimize the impact of having Hopkins matched up on Gilmore and stretch the Patriots' front seven thin. The Pats run defense has had some problems this year and would have to be considered the weakest part of an otherwise air tight defense. The balance between Johnson and Hyde isn't hard to figure out, but the Patriots will also have to consider Watson's ability to run as part of this issue, he's got five explosive runs of his own compared to nine for Hyde and seven for Johnson.
The Patriots defense has allowed just 10 rushes of 15 yards-or-more this season, 5th in the NFL. Continuing that kind of performance will be a big key.
Passing Offense Resurgence
Without J.J. Watt, the Texans pass rush has fallen to 23rd in the NFL, while the Texans pass defense is ranked just 25th in DVOA. Add it all up and you'd expect the Patriots offense to get it going in this one, despite former defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel usually dialing up some challenges for Brady. Now is the time for the Patriots passing offense to get into gear, they're just 12th in passing offense DVOA, their lowest ranking in 16 years, but they've been dealing with issues all season long until now. Isaiah Wynn gave the offensive line a boost in his return against the Cowboys and with Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett expected to return after missing the game against Dallas, along with Matt LaCosse finally being healthy and the rookie receivers having some success, all the pieces are now in place. If we're to expect this team to start playing their best football after Thanksgiving, this is a good game to raise our expectations.
The average margin of the Patriots last two wins over the Texans was just five points. Houston has fought them tough in those games, both of which came in the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium. Playing on the road provides a bit more of a challenge for New England but they've avoided their road struggles of 2018 this season. This is the most healthy and functional Patriots offense that we've had since September, while the defense has experienced little dropoff from the high bar they set in those early games and the special teams continue to make game-changing plays.
The Texans will have a good plan and there's plenty of offensive talent compared to the past opponents that The Boogeymen have destroyed but this feels like it's adding up to a Patriots statement game.