Let’s start by acknowledging that the Houston Texans do not strike fear into the hearts of Patriots fans.
The Patriots are 7-1 all time against the Texans and 4-0 at Gillette Stadium, winning those home games by an average of 25.25 points. The Patriots embarrassed the Texans in Week 3, winning, 27-0, behind a third-string quarterback playing with a broken thumb (Jacoby Brissett).
This time, Tom Brady is back, the Patriots are coming off a bye, and the defense seems to have found its groove. Not surprisingly, the Patriots opened as 16-point favorites.
But it’s the NFL, and “Any Given Sunday,” and blah, blah, blah. You know that, in theory, anything can happen in a one-game elimination scenario. So let’s take a look at how the Texans can pull off the upset (note: none of this is going to happen, and the Patriots are going to win):
■ The Texans have the No. 1 overall defense and No. 2 pass defense. They played surprisingly well this season without J.J. Watt, who has been on injured reserve with a back injury since Week 4. They finished the year No. 1 in yards allowed (301.3), No. 11 in points allowed (20.5 per game), and No. 2 against the pass (201.6 yards per game).
The Texans defense hasn’t been consistently great throughout the season, but it is allowing just 17 points per game over its last five (including Saturday’s playoff win over the Raiders) while rolling to a 4-1 record. Of course, the Texans have beaten the hapless Colts, Jaguars, Bengals, and the Derek Carr-less Raiders in that stretch, but just work with us here.
■ Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus can wreck a game in a hurry. Clowney has struggled with injuries in his three NFL seasons, but is finally developing into the dominant player the Texans envisioned when they drafted him No. 1 overall in 2014. He had a modest six sacks and a forced fumble in 14 regular-season games, but showed off his impressive athleticism against Oakland by intercepting a screen pass and knocking down two passes at the line of scrimmage.
The underrated Mercilus, meanwhile, might be the better pass rusher. The Texans’ first-round pick in 2012, Mercilus led the Texans with 7.5 sacks and a forced fumble, and was a terror against the Raiders, finishing with seven tackles, two sacks, and three tackles for loss.
Patriots offensive tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon have played very well this season, but will have a challenge slowing down the Texans’ solid young pass rushers.
■ The Texans have the eighth-best rushing attack. The Texans will need to control the clock and put quarterback Brock Osweiler in manageable down-and-distance situations to have a chance against the Patriots, but they might have the personnel to do it.
Lamar Miller, signed in free agency last offseason, rushed for 1,073 yards with five touchdowns in 14 games, averaging a healthy 4.0 yards per carry. Alfred Blue is a decent change-of-pace back, averaging 4.2 yards on 100 carries this season.
And left tackle Duane Brown had a dominant run-blocking performance Saturday against the Raiders. Brown didn’t play in the first Patriots-Texans matchup as he recovered from an offseason quadriceps injury, but he has played in 13 straight games and the Texans have ran well behind him. Per Football Outsiders, the Texans are the fifth-best team in the NFL when running behind the left tackle.
The Patriots have allowed only two of their last eight opponents to rush for more than 100 yards, and finished the season ranked No. 3 against the run. This should be a good strength-on-strength matchup.
■ DeAndre Hopkins is great. His stats took a nosedive this season — from 111 catches, 1,521 yards, and 11 touchdowns in 2015 to 78 catches, 954 yards, and 4 touchdowns this season — but Hopkins is still a tremendous talent who deserves the Patriots’ utmost attention.
He had five catches for 67 yards and a touchdown against the Raiders, but those numbers do a disservice to some of the incredible toe-tapping catches he made along the sideline.
Of course, the Texans don’t have great secondary options, and the Patriots have been able to limit Hopkins to nine catches for 185 yards in three career games. But if Malcolm Butler slips or Devin McCourty takes the wrong angle, Hopkins can make the Patriots pay in a hurry.
■ They have been protecting the football. The Texans finished tied for 26th in turnover differential (minus-7). Osweiler isn’t very good, and the defense didn’t create many turnovers (17, also tied for 26th).
But the Texans have been better of late, with only one turnover in their past three games, none against the Raiders.
The Texans call a lot of short, high-percentage passes for Osweiler to get the ball moving, and they could do the same to control the clock on Saturday.
■ Osweiler has beaten the Patriots before. He quarterbacked the Broncos to a 30-24 overtime win over the Patriots during the 2015 regular season. Now, the game was in Denver, the Broncos had one of the greatest defenses of all time, and C.J. Anderson won the game more than Osweiler did.
But Osweiler still made a few big-time throws and helped overcome a 21-7 deficit in the fourth quarter. And there aren’t too many quarterbacks who can say they’ve led a comeback victory over the Patriots.
■ The coaching staff knows the Patriots intimately. Bill O’Brien was the Patriots’ offensive coordinator for five years. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel was the Patriots’ defensive coordinator from 2001 to ’04 and worked with Bill Belichick for most of two decades with the Giants, Browns, Jets, and Patriots. Offensive coordinator George Godsey was a tight ends coach in 2012-13. Linebackers coach Mike Vrabel was a Patriots linebacker from 2001 to ’08. Special teams coordinator Larry Izzo was a standout special teamer for the Patriots from 2001 to ’08. And Vince Wilfork, who played quite well against the Raiders despite not recording a tackle, was a Patriots defensive tackle from 2004 to ’14.
All of which is to say the Texans are quite familiar with the Patriots’ operation. It probably won’t be enough to beat the Patriots, but it can’t hurt.