FOXBOROUGH — It has been nearly four months since the Patriots’ 27-0 win over the Texans in Week 3, and much has changed for both teams. Tom Brady has returned to quarterback the Patriots, and the Texans now know to book a hotel in Foxborough in order to avoid game-day traffic.
Just kidding. The shutout loss was a low point for Bill O’Brien’s team, but Houston rebounded sufficiently to make it to the second weekend of the postseason on the strength of a defense that allowed the fewest yards in the NFL this season.
“I’m not sure that things that happened three and four months ago are really all that important in the grand scheme of things,” said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Let’s run through some of the ways in which the Texans have changed since September.
On defense, Brian Cushing has recovered from his MCL tear and has returned, giving the Texans a stellar duo at inside linebacker with Benardrick McKinney. Bill Belichick loves McKinney, whom the Patriots gave a good look before the 2015 draft, and had plenty of praise for the former Mississippi State Bulldog back in September. With Cushing back, however, the Texans now have two formidable players the Patriots must worry about.
“Those two guys are as good as any combination of inside [linebackers] — I mean individually they’re as good as we’ve played against — but they’re as good as any combination of inside linebackers that we see or that we’ve seen in awhile,” Belichick said.
Up front, the defense has dealt with the loss of J.J. Watt, who played his last game against the Patriots before going on injured reserve but was clearly impaired by his back problems in the game. Without Watt, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has emerged as the team’s top pass rusher.
In his third year, the No. 1 overall pick in 2014 has had his best season in the NFL with a career-high six sacks, one forced fumble, two passes defensed, and 52 tackles, 16 of which were for a loss. He intercepted a pass, batted another one, and tallied four quarterback pressures in the wild-card win over the Raiders on Saturday.
The Texans have gotten much more out of Clowney at defensive end, rather than outside linebacker. He has played end in defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel’s 3-4 defense, which mostly puts him against interior linemen, and also plays on the right end of the line in his team’s 4-3 defense. Belichick said he’s seen the Texans trend toward using their 4-3 looks — which make more sense without the need to maximize Watt’s impact — more often.
In the secondary, cornerback Kevin Johnson has been on injured reserve since Week 7 but has been replaced by A.J. Bouye, who has played very well. Bouye had four passes defended and an interception against the Raiders.
“Yeah, they’re tremendous; the best team we’ve played in terms of pass defense and the way they’re playing,” McDaniels said.
On offense, the Texans have gone from Brock Osweiler at quarterback to Tom Savage and back to Osweiler again, but Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said that the biggest difference from Week 3 is that the Texans have found more balance in their offense.
Running back Alfred Blue played only two offensive snaps in Week 3, but has played a much larger role recently. He was on the field 70 percent of the time in Week 16 and 39 percent of the time in Week 17, both games in which running back Lamar Miller didn’t play.
Miller, who rushed for 1,073 yards and five touchdowns this season, is still the team’s primary back but the Texans have injected more balance into their run game with Blue and Jonathan Grimes.
“All three of those guys have been very productive for them,” Belichick said. “They’re different, but they’re all good. We’ll really have to pay attention to who’s in the game and make sure we’ve got those guys, try to keep them boxed in.”
The Texans also got back left tackle Duane Brown, who spent a year rehabbing after tearing his quadriceps tendon, in Week 5. The three-time Pro Bowler helped the Houston offensive line deny the Raiders’ pass rush, which features Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin, a single sack or quarterback hit. (They did, however, allow eight sacks and 16 quarterback hits over the final two games of the regular season.)
“If he gets his hands on you he can punch and really control the pass rush or get his hands inside in the run game,’’ Patricia said. “He’s usually always in excellent position. That is definitely different. He has really kind of solidified that side over there to really handle that.”
In the passing game, the Texans still have big-play ability with DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller at wide receiver, but have been getting more out of their tight end duo of Ryan Griffin and C.J. Fiedorowicz.
“I think that that whole position has become a very important positon for the Texans . . . It’s a very talented team offensively, but certainly the tight end position is one that’s difficult because of the number of quality players that they have at that spot, and they use all of them and they’ve all been productive,” Belichick said.
As for the players, everyone who spoke in the Patriots locker room Monday shared the same message: September was a long time ago, and no one is looking back.
“We don’t need to worry about that,” left tackle Nate Solder said. “This is a whole different animal here we are playing.”