In Week 3 of the season, when a Jacoby Brissett-led Patriots team dominated the Texans in a 27-0 shutout, it would have been difficult to imagine a rematch between the teams in January. In some ways, with the benefit of a full season of work to scrutinize, it is no less puzzling that Houston will be in Foxborough Saturday, at least from a statistical point of view.
That said, the Texans do feature clear strengths that became increasingly visible over the final four weeks of the season and into the dominating win over an injury-ravaged Raiders team in the wild-card round.
Here’s a by-the-numbers look at some of the defining characteristics of the Texans team that will seek to upset the Patriots this week:
■ A different sort of differential: The Texans were outscored by 49 points during the regular season, a margin that is historically bad for a team that reached the playoffs. It’s the seventh-worst of any playoff team since the merger in 1970, and the worst by a playoff team since the 8-8 Tim Tebow-led Broncos of 2011 (minus-81) got demolished by the Patriots, 45-10, in the divisional round after a surprising win over the Steelers in the wild-card round.
Teams with sizable negative differentials have enjoyed the “any given Sunday” possibility of a single playoff win. But they’ve almost never been able to piece together consecutive playoff victories.
Since the merger, the only team to advance as far as a conference championship after being outscored by at least 10 points in the regular season was the 1978 Oilers, who were outscored by 15 points. They beat the Patriots in the division round but got demolished by the Steelers, 34-5, in the conference championship.
If the Texans beat the Patriots, their back-to-back playoff wins would represent one of the most surprising January runs in league history.
■ No offense, but there is no offense: Since 2000, 204 teams have made the playoffs. The Texans’ 279 regular-season points rank 203d in that group, surpassed only by the 2005 Bears (260 points as a prelude to a one-and-done playoff run).
Houston has not scored as many as 28 points this year. It is the first playoff team since 1994 not to reach that plateau in any game.
That said, the Texans saw a slight offensive uptick down the stretch, when they went 3-1 to close out the regular season before their 27-14 win over the Raiders. After averaging 17.3 points per game through 12 weeks, they’ve nudged that number to 19.8 in their last five.
That boost has come at a time when opponents are daring the Texans to beat them with their passing game. Houston had a solid running game through the first 12 weeks, averaging 4.3 yards per carry (11th in the NFL), but that dropped to 3.4 over the final four weeks (third-worst in the NFL).
Yet the Texans’ passing game hasn’t been any more prolific down the stretch. The Brock Osweiler-led group had a 74.2 passer rating through 12 games, and a 73.3 over the last five. Yet their scoring has increased by roughly 14 percent. How?
■ The defense delivers: Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called the Texans the best pass defense he has faced all year, and undoubtedly, they made life hard on opposing offenses — even without superstar J.J. Watt as an anchor.
While their yield of 20.5 points per game was 11th in the NFL, the Texans permitted the fewest yards per game (301.3) along with the second-fewest plays of 20 or more yards. They also led the NFL in the frequency of forcing three-and-outs (27.6 percent).
Yet for much of the year — as was the case for New England — Houston’s defense was characterized largely by its ability to limit big plays. In recent weeks — again, like the Patriots — the group has become even more impactful.
The Patriots ran over the Texans for 185 rushing yards in Week 3, and Houston allowed 135 yards a game through seven games. But since then, in 10 contests, Houston has permitted just 71 rushing yards per game, easily the best mark in the NFL.
While Houston allowed an 84.3 opponent passer rating (seventh best in the NFL), its pass defense has been dominant over the last five games, holding quarterbacks to a 58.5 rating (second-best in the NFL in that span). And while they picked off just 11 passes during the regular season, the Texans have eight interceptions in their last five contests (including three last week against Oakland).
When the Texans elicit turnovers, they’ve typically been able to take control of games. They’re 1-3 when they fail to claim a turnover, and 9-4 when securing either an interception or fumble.
Of course, the Patriots had 10 turnover-free games this year, second-most in NFL history (behind only New England’s 2010 team, which had 11). Indeed, New England’s 11 turnovers this year were less than half of the 24 committed by the Texans, a team that had more passes picked off (16) than touchdown receptions (15).
It is worth noting that Houston turned over the ball just once in the last three weeks after going turnover-free just once in its first 14 games.
Their offense lacks the explosiveness to win a shootout, so it would appear that the Texans’ best chance of victory resides in the same formula that, rather improbably, has them in the divisional round of the playoffs: Try to minimize their own mistakes, and hope that a defense that found its stride in the final weeks of the regular season can not only control Tom Brady but create the game-changing plays that would be necessary to secure a monumental upset.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.