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Scouting the Matchups: Containing Watt key to victory

The Patriots must do a better job of keeping Tom Brady comfortable in the pocket and that starts with containing J.J. Watt.


The Houston defense was particularly tough against the run during the team's recent four-game winning streak, but the Texans gave up 182 yards rushing on 36 carries in last week's 30-21 loss to Buffalo. New England's ground game doesn't scare anyone. The Patriots were held to a total of 142 yards rushing in their two losses, and they rank near the bottom of the league in rushing yards per game. That said, New England has had its moments when it has emphasized the run. LeGarrette Blount gained a season-high 129 yards on 29 carries during a victory over the Redskins in Week 9, but New England will likely find rushing yards hard to come by this week. Advantage: Texans



Houston's running game suffered a major blow when Arian Foster, the team's top running back, ruptured his Achilles during a blowout loss to the Dolphins on Oct. 20. His season ended two days later when he was placed on injured reserve. Foster ran for more than 1,000 yards in four of his first six professional seasons. Alfred Blue, a second-year back out of LSU, has become the team's primary running threat in Foster's absence. He's appeared in every game this season and has gained a team-high 444 yards on 127 carries. His only standout performance this year came during a 19-9 victory over Tampa Bay, when he gained 139 yards on 31 attempts. That's his only game with at least 100 yards this season. Although the Patriots run defense has shown some vulnerability in the two-game skid, the front should be able to contain this pedestrian attack.  Advantage: Patriots



The passing game is the strength of the New England offense. The challenge this week will be keeping defensive end J.J. Watt out of the Patriots backfield. Watt can be a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to disrupting the pocket, and he has recorded more than 20 sacks in a season twice. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will again be working with a depleted receiving corps that will be missing Julian Edelman (foot) and possibly tight end Rob Gronkowski (knee). New England has been at or near the top of the NFL in passing yards per game for most of the season, and the Texans entered last week's game against Buffalo ranked third in pass defense. This is the matchup that will likely determine the outcome of Sunday's game. If the Patriots are to gain the edge, they'll need to convert on third down. The Texans are the best in football in that department while New England has struggled in recent weeks. That trend needs to stop in Houston. Advantage: Patriots



Houston's passing game has shown steady improvement since the quarterback situation was stabilized. After sharing the job with Ryan Mallett early in the season, Brian Hoyer was named the team's starting QB following a 31-20 triumph over Jacksonville. Mallett was released after he missed the team flight before a game against Miami. The Texans had a 1-3 record in the four games Mallett started. Hoyer has only one 300-yard passing performance this season, but he has been good at protecting the football. He enters Sunday's game with 18 touchdown passes and six interceptions but will be facing a New England defense that's near the top of the NFL in sacks and has been getting strong performances from cornerback Malcolm Butler. DeAndre Hopkins is enjoying an All-Pro caliber season and the Patriots keep him from controlling the game. That will be no small task. Advantage: Texans



Houston's Randy Bullock was the first casualty of the NFL's decision to increase the distance on extra-point attempts this season. Bullock was cut after he missed two PATs in Houston's first three games, and he also failed to connect on a 43-yard field goal in a Week 3 victory over Tampa Bay. The Texans signed Nick Novak, who has missed two of his six field goal attempts from beyond 40 yards and also missed a PAT against the Bills last week. Houston has an above-average punter in Shane Lechler, and the team's coverage units have been exceptional in recent weeks. Poor special teams play hurt the Patriots in their loss to Denver and again in last week's loss to Philadelphia. The Eagles returned a blocked punt for a TD and also returned a punt for a TD. But such performances have been the exception. Advantage: Patriots



The timing of this game is less-than-ideal from a New England standpoint, since the Patriots are still missing some key pieces due to injuries and the Texans are playing their best football of the season. Houston enters this contest with a 6-6 record after a 2-5 start. The Texans are sure to be playing in front of a raucous crowd now that they're back in the hunt for the AFC South title, and this game was moved from its original 1 p.m. start to prime time. Creating turnovers could be a key for New England. The Texans are plus-4 in takeaways during their last five games, four of which were victories. Brady was intercepted twice in last week's loss to Philadelphia and turnovers have hurt the Patriots in recent weeks. The Texans are fighting for their playoff lives and have more at stake than New England, which still is in control of the AFC East despite the losses. Advantage: Texans

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