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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Patriots stumble into Houston

New England heads south to take on the Texans in the midst of a rare late-season losing streak, looking to get back on track against Bill O'Brien's resurgent team.

There is no way around it, last Sunday's New England loss to the Eagles was an absolute stunner.

Of course, when a team gives up a blocked punt for a touchdown, a punt return for a score and a 99-yard pick-6, it's a pretty solid recipe for the unthinkable upset.

Now, though, the Patriots (10-2) find themselves in the midst of a rare (not since 2002) post-Thanksgiving losing streak that has Bill Belichick's team in a dogfight for a top seed in the fast-approaching AFC playoffs.

New England heads to Houston for a Sunday night battle with Bill O'Brien's familiar Texans (6-6), a team that's won five of its last seven to climb into the playoff picture after notching just one win in its first five games.

Tom Brady and the banged up Patriots passing attack struggle toward this matchup with the NFL's No. 3 pass defense and No. 1 third down defenders. A unit that once seemingly rolled out of bed to put up 30-plus points and big numbers through the air has struggled to get the job done without the likes of Dion Lewis, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski.

Check out photos from access to players and coaches as the New England Patriots prepare to play the Houston Texans on Sunday night at NRG Stadium in Houston.

Though Edelman (foot) and Gronkowski (knee) returned to the practice field this week, it would seem a bit optimistic to see either Sunday night in Houston as the former has already been ruled out.

The Texans have their own All-Pro star with injury issues as all-world defensive lineman J.J. Watt suffered a broken hand this week in practice and sat out on both Thursday and Friday, though he's expected to be ready for game action wearing a cast on his left hand.

No Gronk, a wounded Watt, missing Patriots passing weapons and a matchup with one of Belichick's most successful former assistants make this a game filled with intriguing storylines to keep an eye on.

All that matters to Belichick, Brady and most fans, though, is that New England gets back on the winning track before a late-season, injury-plagued slump creates further turmoil.

The upstart Texans, though, will be looking to prove their mettle against what remains the NFL's true measuring stick.

Here are a few key areas to watch in Sunday night's interesting AFC battle between two teams, two Bills, that know each other well and have playoff motivations running high:

On the offensive - The Patriots have been a team led by its offense for nearly a decade. It's Brady's world and the rest of the team needs to fall in line. But the offense has certainly not been firing on all cylinders of late. Brady has lamented a lack of rhythm. He's clearly adversely affected by the loss of weapons due to injuries. The offensive line hasn't blocked well enough and No. 12 has held the ball too long, leading to 36 QB hits in the last three games. That can't continue. Many believe the Patriots need to establish the run with LeGarrette Blount against a Texans team with the NFL's 21st run defense that allows 4.4 yards per carry. But that approach hasn't worked too well over the last month and really isn't how the Patriots are built. Rather, it would seem getting back to a spread, quick passing attack might be a better plan. Even with the injuries, the group of passing back James White, tight end Scott Chandler and receivers Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell have been around Foxborough long enough to be considered legitimate options. The Patriots weapons are weakened, but far from non-existent. Brady and the line need to be better. The receivers need to do a better job getting open and catching the football. Overall the Patriots need to do a better job running their offense, their style of game plan. The Texans have a very good pass defense and Watt leads a top-10 pass rush, but the Patriots need to fight that strength with their own supposed strength, which is throwing the football, even as currently constituted.

Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart counts down his 'Top 10' players to watch during the Patriots Week 14 game against the Houston Texans. 

You know Watt? - Speaking of Watt, he's the best non-quarterback on the planet in recent years. He's a disruptive machine who is on a different level than all other defensive linemen and pass rushers. He leads the NFL in sacks (13.5), tackles for a loss (24) and QB hits (42). Watt is actually putting up better numbers this year than during pass Defensive Player of the Year seasons. Belichick compared him to … Lawrence Taylor this week. That's high praise from the former Giants defensive coordinator. But Watt suffered a broken hand in practice on Wednesday and did not practice the rest of the week. While he's expected to play, it will be with a cast on his left hand and at less than 100 percent. That can only help out Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon and the rest of the right side of the offensive front that will be assigned to helping keep Watt from ruining the game. In three past games against New England, Watt has 13 tackles, a half sack, a pass defense and a forced fumble. As is the case so many times for Belichick-coached teams, New England has done a decent job taking away Houston's best player. That will be the plan again Sunday night for a group that's struggled to keep anyone off Brady in recent weeks. And it must be done without allowing the likes of Whitney Mericlus, Jadeveon Clowney, Vince Wilfork and other members of the Houston front from picking up the slack.

Decommission the Nuk - If Watt is the key to the Texans defense, then to a lesser degree wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (nicknamed Nuk after his baby pacifier, though it's pronounced "nuke")  is the key to the offense. The third-year star is enjoying a breakout season as a rising star. He's 4th in the NFL in catches (86), 3rd in yards (1,169) and tied for 3rd in touchdown catches (10). He makes highlight reel catches on a regular basis. As Belichick might say, even Hopkins is seemingly well-covered he's not well-covered. Hopkins has had at least five catches in every game this season including exactly five in four straight games. He's scored a touchdown in seven of 12 games, with two scores in three contests. His 13.6-yard average is actually down a bit from his 14.9 career average and his 15.9 a year ago. He's had a catch of 20-plus yards in eight games. What's that all mean? It means the Patriots secondary and maybe Malcolm Butler have another difficult challenge on their hands. Butler held his own against Odell Beckham Jr. and Hopkins is a bigger version with one-handed playmaking ability. He's physical, which could be fun in a potential matchup with Butler. Either way, Hopkins should see help over the top from a safety - Duron Harmon seems likely - as the Patriots will clearly focus on keeping Houston's best weapon from going off like he did in five 100-yard games this season.

Code Blue - The Patriots run defense has been in a slump. The unit that had been so impressive in a month-long stretch to rise to No. 2 in the league has been a bit loose of late. Three straight games the unit has allowed a season high in opponents' attempts. Those 30-plus carry games included the Broncos rushing for 179 yards in the overtime win with a 5.6 average. Last week the Eagles churned out 128 yards, even with DeMarco Murray limited to 1 yard on his first five attempts. Opponents have found too much room to work on the edges of the defense, likely in part to Dont'a Hightower missing time to a knee injury. Hightower is questionable this week. Houston doesn't have Arian Foster due to a torn Achilles, but the Texans will still try to test the suddenly susceptible Patriots front. Alfred Blue has gotten the bulk of the carries since Foster went down, but hasn't been overly productive with just a 3.5-yard average and topping 4 yards per carry just once in the last nine games. Chris Polk and Jonathan Grimes have each gotten chances and had some success in recent weeks. Houston clearly wants to have some balance on offense to keep from forcing Brian Hoyer to carry the entire load. New England needs to keep that from happing and force O'Brien's offense to be one-dimensional.

Familiar concerns? - Many have theorized that familiarity with Belichick, Brady and New England's overall system have been a factor in upsets by the Browns (Eric Mangini), Broncos (Josh McDaniels) and Jets (Mangini). If that's true, then New England could have some problems on Sunday in Houston. Beyond O'Brien's intel as the former Patriots offensive coordinator, George Godsey, Charles London, Romeo Crennel, Mike Vrabel Anthony Pleasant, Hoyer, Wilfork and others have intimate knowledge of the way things are done in Foxborough. Crennel may know Belichick as well as any coach on the planet with their 20 years-plus of history together. One factor that could negate the Texans perceived advantage is the transition the Patriots offense is going through right now given all the injuries. It could be argued that New England doesn't even have its offense down pat right now, never mind the Texans being able to get a predictable handle on what Brady and Co. might do. Clearly, though, Houston has a good idea of what Belichick, Brady and the Patriots like to do historically on both sides of the ball. Whether that ends up being a factor will only be known in the fading hours of Sunday night.

Third downs not so charming - The Patriots were once far and away the best third-down offense in football. But that, like the group's health and point production, has fallen off. Brady and Co. converted 50 percent of third downs in five of the first nine games of the year, a mark that has not been reached once in the last three weeks, two of which included production below 30 percent. Some of that is poor execution on the money down, but some of it is the negative plays coming on first and second down that set up tougher third-and-long situations. Things won't get any easier this week as the Texans have the No. 1 third down defense in football, allowing just 28.7 percent conversions on the season. Solid coverage and a top-10 pass rush (assuming Watt is effective) will make life very difficult on Brady and his receivers. Crennel's experience will only help that for a team that's allowed quarterbacks to complete just 58.9 percent of passes the last two years, holding seven opponents below 50 percent. Passing will be hard all day. Passing on third down and moving the chains will be even harder. What should be a strength for the Patriots is a challenge these days and could be a key area in any potential New England success or failure on Sunday night.

Prediction - I have to admit, O'Brien and Crennel are two of my favorite assistant coaches to ever pass through Gillette Stadium. They are good guys and very good coaches. They have a Texans team that's dealt with turmoil at the quarterback position for two years fighting for a playoff spot. That's impressive. Watt and Hopkins (who popped up with a hamstring injury late in the week) are two of the best at their positions in the game today, the former one of the best of all time. The Patriots are scuffling at a time when they are usually peaking. There are questions in all three phases of the game coming off last Sunday's special teams debacle against the Eagles. Still, though, we can't get too crazy with the negativity swirling in Patriots Nation. Brady is still Brady. Belichick is still Belichick. The team still has plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. As Aaron Rodgers said, R-E-L-A-X. I look for Brady to come out with some spread sets and try to throw the ball quickly to Amendola to get things going, with Chandler, White and LaFell also all getting early chances. There will be punts, but I also think there will be some early scoring drives. That will put some pressure on Hoyer, who admittedly has played about as well as I think he's capable of late with 18 touchdowns and just six interceptions on the season and a solid 94.4 rating that ranks a respectable 13th in football. I think the Patriots will do everything in their schematic power to ensure that Watt and Hopkins don't play to their potential. Then it's up to the rest of Houston's attack to step up. I think New England will meet that challenge. Keep Brady from getting hit (which hasn't been done in recent weeks) and keep the Texans limited run game from getting going and I think the Patriots will control the game. There are no guarantees or sure things these days, but I'll go with the 27-16 Patriots win on the road to ease the masses just a bit and get back on the winning course. 

What other things will you be watching for in this Sunday night showdown in Houston? Let us know with a comment below!

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