Welcome to Season 9, Episode 10 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
Hope is back. The Patriots’ stirring, affirming, and, yes, unexpected 23-17 victory over the Ravens Sunday night made sure of that. The recent four-game losing streak and an ugly win over the winless Jets in Week 9 that offered little reassurance now feel like ancient history. They may not beat everyone, but they can play with anyone.
The reality of the standings — nine teams in the AFC have better records than the Patriots’ 4-5 — may temper that hope somewhat. But it’s satisfying to feel good about this team again after the rough adjustment to post-Tom Brady life in the first half of the season.
The Patriots should be able to keep it going against a Texans team that has two wins, both over the Jaguars. Deshaun Watson remains one of the league’s most exciting players, and J.J. Watt still does a lot of commercials, but former coach Bill O’Brien’s personnel ineptitude cost the Texans in the present (gifting DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals) and will in the future (they have no first- or second-round pick next year).
These teams are familiar with each other — this is the sixth straight year they will play — but it is not a rivalry. The Patriots are 10-2 all time against the Texans, including 2-0 in the playoffs.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this one started …
Three players I’ll be watching
Rex Burkhead: I suppose it’s subject to change to some degree based on opponent, game plan, and health status, but at the moment it appears the Patriots have a hierarchy at running back. Hard-running Damien Harris surpassed the 20-carry threshold in a game for the first time in his career against the Ravens, and looked like a legitimate feature back, rambling for 121 yards on 22 carries. James White has been underutilized this season — he has just 13 touches in the last four games, including two against the Ravens — but still manages to come up with crucial plays, such as a third-and-2 conversion on the second-quarter drive that ended with Jakobi Meyers’s touchdown pass. Which brings us to Burkhead, who does a little of everything. Unsung but effective and efficient, Burkhead played just 20 offensive snaps against the Ravens, but he made them count, running six times for 31 yards and catching four passes for 35 yards and a pair of TDs. If the Texans dwell on the other members of the running back mix, Burkhead will be there to make them pay.
Kyle Dugger: I’ll say it. I’d demand you hold me to it, but I suspect you’ll agree with me: The Patriots got a star when they took Dugger out of Division 2 Lenoir-Rhyne with the 37th pick in the most recent NFL Draft. No, he hasn’t reached that lofty status yet, and he may not for a season or two. But the clues are everywhere. Even in games in which he has been a limited participant, he’ll do something that pops off your television screen that leaves you saying, “Who was that missile?” until replay confirms it was No. 35. He reminds me of young Lawyer Milloy, but taller and rangier. And then there are the moments when he makes a legitimate star turn, such as last Sunday in the affirming win over the Ravens, when he contributed a team-high 12 tackles, held Ravens tight end Mark Andrews to a single catch when he was assigned to him, and made such a tone-setting impression on an early play — holding the point of attack against 270-pound Ravens tight end Nick Boyle and making the tackle on Mark Ingram — that Bill Belichick highlighted it during his weekly film breakdown with Scott Zolak on Patriots.com. Dugger is going to change the narrative that Belichick shouldn’t draft defensive backs in the second round.
Brandin Cooks: As we learned during his one season with the Patriots (2017, when he had 65 catches for 1,082 yards and 7 touchdowns), Cooks is a very good receiver who isn’t quite as good as you hoped he would be. It would be a surprise if he gives the Patriots much trouble Sunday given their familiarity with him and some of his route-running flaws, but it’s worth noting that the Texans have been utilizing him more often. He has six or more catches in four of the last five games, and is averaging more than nine targets per game over the same span.
Grievance of the week
I remember when conspiracy theories — I’m telling you, David Stern grabbed the doctored, ice-cold envelope to make sure Patrick Ewing went to the Knicks! — used to be amusing. Too often now, especially in the real world, they’re troubling if not outright damaging. And then there are the ones that are both insignificant and ridiculous.
It’s within that last category that I’d put this week’s silly notion that the Patriots deliberately left J.C. Jackson off the Pro Bowl ballot because he’s up for a new contract soon. The Jakobi-thin rationale for this theory is that … well, I’m not sure. I haven’t been able to make sense of it. That he might have an incentive that they will have to pay off? That it just seems like something Belichick would do to spite someone who has been … um, a really good player?
If Jackson plays the rest of the season like he has so far, he will go to the Pro Bowl. He leads the league with six interceptions. But there’s a really good reason why he wasn’t on the ballot, and it’s one Patriots fans and media should have identified immediately: He doesn’t always start.
Jason McCourty (nine starts) and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore (six starts, before missing the last three games with injury) are at the top of the depth chart on their conventional defense. Jackson has started four games, three since Gilmore got hurt. (He also started against the Chiefs.)
Now, we know the Patriots, like most teams, play five defensive backs the vast majority of the time, and sometimes more than that. Jackson has played at least 86 percent of the defensive snaps five times. He’s a regular, and a good one.
But teams are allowed to submit just 11 names for the ballot, and the Patriots submitted their base defense — the front seven, plus four defensive backs. And Jackson may not even have a claim to being a starter over Jonathan Jones, who has six starts.
It’s shortsighted of the league to limit the number of names submitted to 11 per side. The issue was remedied when linebacker Anfernee Jennings was dropped from the ballot and Jackson added after his absence became a thing. He’ll probably make the Pro Bowl. He probably would have anyway — at the least as a replacement — without all the noise.
Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson vs. Texans receiver Will Fuller
With Gilmore limited in practice during the week after missing the last three games with a knee injury, it makes sense that Jackson would get the primary assignment of dueling with the Texans’ best receiver and a legitimate downfield threat.
Both players have been going extremely well lately. Fuller had a touchdown catch in six consecutive games before the streak ended Sunday against the Browns. He had five catches on nine targets for just 38 yards in that game, but high winds were a factor in the passing game all day.
Fuller, who is in his fifth season, has long been an enigma for the Texans. He’s been a productive player when on the field, but that’s the rub; he’s had a difficult time staying on the field. He looked like he was on the fast track to stardom in 2017, but a torn anterior cruciate ligament ended his season after just seven games. He finished that season with 503 yards and four touchdowns.
This season, his first as the No. 1 receiver after the foolish trade of Hopkins to the Cardinals, Fuller has been productive (41-628-6). Better, he has been available, playing all 11 games. He’s never played more than 14 in a season.
But Jackson — did we mention he’s playing so well he’d make the Pro Bowl even if he weren’t on the ballot? — has been on a roll himself. He did get burned for a pair of touchdowns against the Jets, but that was a hiccup. He leads the NFL in interceptions (6), and if he can manage one in a sixth straight game Sunday, he’ll tie a league record shared by six players, including legends Mel Blount and Lester Hayes. Jackson has the most interceptions of any player in the league since the start of 2018, his rookie season.
Watson hasn’t thrown a pick since Week 5, but given his willingness to take downfield shots with Fuller, there’s a reasonable chance Jackson continues his streak.
Or, do you think J.J. Watt ever wears his letterman’s jacket?
At least Watson got paid, signing a well-deserved four-year, $160 million extension in September. Otherwise, there might be reason to have some sympathy for the situation he is in. If he isn’t on, the Texans just don’t have a chance.
Watson leads a Houston offense that averages 266.6 passing yards, eighth in the league. If the Patriots take that away — and you know that will be Belichick’s emphasis — there’s nothing else the Texans do that suggest they’ll have a shot.
With Duke Johnson (3.1 yards per carry) apparently being the second coming of Ivy Joe Hunter, their running attack averages just 87.9 yards per game (31st). The Texans are adequate at best against the pass (18th, 241.7 yards per game). And they’re porous against the run (32d, 167.4).
The Patriots will aim to beat them by taking away Fuller, and they will dominate the time of possession with Harris, Burkhead, Cam Newton, and their increasingly fierce running attack (161.1 yards per game, third).
Belichick said this past week that the Texans are “very good at everything.” I suspect he meant it as much as when he told us last season that Washington quarterbacks Colt McCoy, Case Keenum, and Dwayne Haskins were “all pretty good.” It’s wise; the Patriots aren’t good enough to get cocky. But they are good enough to turn this into a three-game winning streak.
Patriots 31, Texans 20.