While Sunday afternoon's battle in Houston between the Patriots (8-3) and Texans (2-9) isn't quite the game everyone expected when the playoff rematch from last January was announced last spring, in many ways there's a lot on the line for both teams. Coming off consecutive prime time games against playoff-caliber competition, New England has itself very much in the mix for a top seed in the AFC. But, Bill Belichick's team has lost three games in a row on the road dating back to early October. Houston, on the other hand, is actually in the midst of a nine-game losing streak that has the supposed preseason Super Bowl contender in line for the top pick in next spring's NFL Draft. In some ways this could have the makings of a trap game for Tom Brady and the Patriots in a locale that saw the team win a Super Bowl nearly a decade ago. But given that the dismal Texans may be looking to play out the string and lock up a No. 1 overall pick, the trap might not be quite a dangerous. It's Homecoming at Reliant Stadium -- whatever that means -- but until they announce the king and queen of Houston work your way toward the 1 p.m. Eastern kickoff with this road-trip ready, southern-fried edition of the Patriots at Texans Pregame Six-Pack!
- Watt-ch out!** - J.J. Watt is not only the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year after a dominating second season a last fall, he's also having another pretty impressive season for the Texans defense in 2013. Under Watt's direction up front, Houston has the NFL's No. 1 defense in terms of yards allowed. Watt leads his unit in sacks (9.5) and tackles. He leads the NFL with 35 QB hits and 17 tackles for a loss. While some of his Texans teammates may have packed it in for the season given the utter disappointment of the losing streak, the relentless Watt is fighting to the finish. He's easily the most dangerous member of the Houston defense from his 3-4 end spot and the guy the Patriots front must be aware of on each and every snap. He moves around at times, so it's a challenge for the entire New England offense line. The most interesting matchup will be when Watt is on the left defensive front, opposite Patriots right tackle Will Svitek. The veteran backup will be filling in with his first start of the year thanks to an ankle injury that sidelines Marcus Cannon. Svitek is an experienced option to turn to as the Patriots third starting right tackle of the season, but he faces a major challenge in Watt. A week after Von Miller made a number of big plays early to help build a lead for the Broncos in New England, Watt is a similarly talented and disruptive force who can ruin a game almost single handedly for an offense. Contain Watt and the offense has a pretty good chance to make plays and put up points. But let Watt rumble around as he is wont to do - he has a sack in each of the last five games - and Brady could be in trouble.
- Contain Johnson** - If Watt is the key dangerous weapon on the Houston defense, the same can be said of veteran Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson on the Texans offensive attack. Despite the losing and a change at quarterback, Houston actually has the league's No. 11 passing attack. Johnson is at the center of that. The veteran has nearly twice as many catches as his nearest teammate, with his 74 receptions ranking second in the AFC and tied for third in the NFL. He's also one of just four receivers to have already topped 1,000 yards on the season. Johnson presents another Pro Bowl matchup for New England No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib. The two actually met twice last season. Interestingly Johnson had exactly eight catches for 95 yards in each matchup, both Patriots victories. He did not reach the end zone in either game and his longest catch was 25 yards. Johnson's five touchdowns leads his team, including a 62-yard long. He's averaging a solid 13.5 yards a catch. He still has the ability to make plays all over the field and hit the big one. All five of his scores and a pair of 100-yard efforts came in the last month, so it doesn't look like Johnson is going to take losing lying down. Talib is still battling a hip injury, so he may need some help in this meeting. Still, taking away Case Keenum's top option is a first step toward ensuring that the Houston offense doesn't produce enough to pull off the upset against a banged up Patriots secondary.
- Road to redemption** - Both Belichick and Brady commented this week about the fact that the Patriots have lost three games on the road and need to starting playing better away from Gillette Stadium. While that's true, two of those losses came more than a month ago when Brady was working with less than a full set of weapons on offense. Since then the unit has looked much more like we've come to expect in New England. That's the group that will be on the field Sunday afternoon looking to snap that road losing streak against a defense that has allowed plenty of points this season. The last time we saw New England on the road two weeks ago on Monday night in Carolina, there was plenty of fight to the finish in a playoff atmosphere that ended with a controversial call. If the Patriots bring the same type of effort on the road in this one against a bumbling Texans team the results should be much different. The days of 1-for-12 third down performances on the road that led to losses in Cincinnati and New York should be a thing of the past. It just so happens the Patriots have played the most impressive defenses on their schedule this season. That's led to losing. But that should change Sunday for Brady and Co.
4. Red dawn - The Texans have some weird numbers on defense. They're No. 1 in yards. But they're terrible, No. 30 in the NFL, in red zone defense allowing nearly 66-percent touchdowns. So even if the New England struggles to move the ball at times, Rob Gronkowski and the rest should find pay dirt when they do get chances to punch the ball into the end zone. New England's red zone offense is still middle of the pack for the year, but has been much improved with the return of its Pro Bowl tight end and full complement of options. As is so often the case, kicking field goals in the red zone would be a major letdown and let the Texans have a chance. Houston is tied for 26th in the league in points allowed, a big reason for that is its ineptitude in the red zone. It also doesn't help that the team is tied for 30th in the league in turnover differential, including 20 giveaways on the season leading to short fields for the opposition, or even a bunch of which were pick-six touchdowns thanks to Matt Schaub early in the year. Regardless of how the Patriots get into the red zone, they must take advantage when they get there to squash and Houston upset hopes.
5. Backfield in motion? - One of the biggest questions this week surrounding the Patriots dealt with fumble-prone Stevan Ridley and what his future was with the team. Ridley has fumbled in three straight games. The first, against the Steelers, was deemed by Belichick to be a good play by Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu and Ridley was right back in action on the next series. The second came in Carolina and was a costly red zone turnover. Ridley was sidelined for a while, but eventually returned to carry the ball again. Last week's against Denver led to a scoop-and-score touchdown and came on an attempted spin move at the line of scrimmage. Ridley spent the next four-plus quarters, including overtime, on the sideline. Belichick has always said that taking care of the ball is the most important thing on a ball carrier's To-Do List. Could Ridley's time as New England's lead back and starter be coming to an end? Will he get a chance to redeem himself in Houston? Will Shane Vereen, who's had eight catches in each of the last two weeks and been impressive in all three games he's been healthy for this season, take over as the primary back in New England's spread offense? How will LeGarrette Blount, who also fumbled against Denver, and Brandon Bolden fit into the committee backfield moving forward? There are plenty of questions to answer in terms of the guys lining up behind Brady, and we may get a hint at those answers in how the New England running backs are deployed in Houston. If Ridley is going to take a diminished role a year removed from a 1,200-yard season could he even be inactive due to his fumble problems, as was the case down the stretch of his rookie season? Tune in Sunday at 1 to find out!
6. Stay the course - While the Texans 2-9 record would seem to fly in the face of the idea, both Brady and Belichick talked this week about how much the current Houston team looks like the one that battled for a top seed in the AFC just a year ago. But even if we buy into that idea, that shouldn't be a problem for a Patriots team that handled that Texans team so well last December and January. New England beat the Texans 42-14 at Gillette Stadium last Dec. 10 and then again the postseason a month later with a 41-28 win. Even at their supposed best and coming to town in their infamous Letterman jackets, Houston just couldn't hang with New England. In reality, neither team is quite like it was this time a year ago, but either way it appears the Patriots have the advantage over Houston regardless of how you break down the matchup. The Patriots only loss over the years against the Texans came in a less than full effort by New England in the season finale in 2009. Other than that, Belichick's team has always taken care of business, and that should be the clear expectation once again.
There is no question that the Patriots defense is dealing with injuries. Five of the team's top six defensive backs are questionable for the matchup with the Texans and Johnson. Up front New England's run defense has struggled of late - yes that was 280 yards allowed last week! - heading into a matchup with a team that is averaging 4.4 yards per carry for the year. Still, the fact that the Patriots offense is back to its productive self makes up for a lot of what ails the defense. Add in the fact that the Texans can be turnover-prone and that teams have been getting pretty consistent pressure on Keenum and this looks like a road matchup where the Patriots should have everything lined up for a solid victory. That's exactly what I expect. I don't see too much of a letdown for Belichick's team, and that may be balanced out by a Houston squad that's got little to play for other than the No. 1 overall pick. Look for Brady to have another solid day spreading the ball around to his various weapons with continually improved efficiency. Gronkowski will find success in the red zone and Vereen will continue to impress. Chandler Jones has been consistently getting to the quarterback, and that, too, should continue. When you give Belichick one thing to take away on either side of the ball - which would be the case in this one with Watt and Johnson - New England usually successfully meets that challenge. Put it all together and I can see maybe the Patriots most impressive, lopsided victory of the season. Houston has given up 27 or more points in seven of 11 games this season. This will make eight, as I see something in the range of a 35-13 victory for the Patriots as the run through November and December continues to march toward a top seed in the AFC against a team that ranks 30th in the league in point differential.