Welcome to Season 8, Episode 12 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
In some ways, the Houston Texans — the Patriots’ opponents on “Sunday Night Football” this week and a frequent stooge of the six-time Super Bowl champions through the years — are reminiscent of their Texas NFL brethren.
Like the Dallas Cowboys, whom the Patriots defeated, 13-9, last Sunday in a game that didn’t seem that close, the Texans can brag of a talent-laden roster, especially on offense. Yet even in winning seasons (they enter with a 7-4 record and the lead in the AFC South) they usually end up carrying the weight of an underachiever into the offseason. They’re good, but never as good as they should be.
With the Cowboys, a fundamental reason of that seems to be the limitations of their uninspiring coach, Jason Garrett. There’s little doubt that Bill O’Brien is the most successful coach the Texans, founded in 2002, have ever had, but then, that’s a list of three full-timers. At 49-42 through five-plus seasons, he’s the only Texans coach with a winning record. It’s not a bad run so far, and Patriots fans who remember him as the offensive coordinator in between Josh McDaniels stints are aware of his competence.
But his Garrettness seeps out when his Texans face the Patriots. O’Brien is 0-5 against his former boss, Bill Belichick, with the Patriots prevailing over the Texans in each of the last four regular seasons. The Patriots have outscored the Texans 151-75 in those five wins, or by an average of score of 30-15. Only one of those games was played in Houston, but it was a suspense-free 27-6 win in December 2015.
(The Patriots’ dominance of the Texans isn’t new to the O’Brien years. They’re 10-1 all time against Houston, and 1-0 when the Texans show up to Foxborough wearing goofy letterman jackets.)
If this is the time for the Texans to take the next step and defeat their frequent conqueror, well, it’s going to be as much of a challenge as ever.
The Patriots feature the No. 1 defense in the league, coming off a game in which it held the No. 1 offense in the league without a touchdown. The defense has allowed just nine touchdowns in 11 games, putting them in range of setting the record for the fewest passing/rushing touchdowns allowed in a season (16, by the 1985 Chicago Bears and 2000 Baltimore Ravens, arguably the two most ferocious defenses in modern NFL history).
And that’s not the only history the Patriots are chasing. With a win, they would have 11 or more wins for the 10th straight year, extending their own record.
When a team goes up against Tom Brady, Belichick, and the rest of the Patriots at this point, they’re also going up against history. It’s a feeling O’Brien knows well, and hasn’t yet figured out how to overcome.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this thing started . . .
THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED TOM BRADY
Deshaun Watson — The NFL has been fortunate to have a marvelous collection of multi-skilled quarterbacks enter the league over the last few years. Consider: Since the 2017 draft, the league has added Lamar Jackson (the Most Valuable Player front-runner this season), Patrick Mahomes (the MVP last year), Watson, Kyler Murray, and Mitchell Trubisky, plus other decent prospects such as Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield. Watson sometimes gets lost in the shadow of Mahomes and Jackson, two of the more electrifying talents to enter the league in years, but he’s a genuine star in his own right, and one who seems to possess genuine and innate leadership skills to complement his vast on-field abilities. In his third season — he was chosen 12th overall in 2017, two spots after Mahomes and — good heavens, the Bears will regret this forever — an even 10 after Trubisky. Watson rates eighth in the NFL in passing yards (2,899), completing 69 percent of his passes, with 20 touchdowns and just 7 interceptions. Though he doesn’t look to run with the fervor of the Ravens’ Jackson, he’s a threat to take off, accumulating 301 yards and five touchdowns on 58 carries. If there’s a weakness in his game, it’s that he holds the ball too long waiting for plays to develop downfield; he’s been sacked 32 times, and a Patriots defense that rates fourth in the NFL with 37 sacks should be able to turn his patience against him. The Patriots also lead the league with 20 interceptions, but Watson has limited his interception percentage to 1.9 after averaging 3.9 percent as a rookie two years ago.
Isaiah Wynn — The Patriots had been anticipating Wynn’s return from a toe injury for weeks while replacement-level tackle Marshall Newhouse struggled protecting Brady’s blindside. It did not take long last Sunday upon Wynn’s return following an eight-game stint on injured reserve to see why. On the first play from scrimmage, Sony Michel — a back who was reminding us more of vintage Vagas Ferguson than vintage Curtis Martin lately — busted loose to Wynn’s side for 13 yards. And when the Patriots needed a first down in the final minutes to run down the clock, Michel picked up 12 yards on second and 5 with a minute and 33 seconds left — again running behind Wynn. Wynn, a first-round pick in 2018, should be expected to make a difference over a journeyman such as Newhouse, but it was reassuring to see how obvious that difference was right away. The Texans’ run defense is 17th in the league, allowing 108 yards per game, so this is a chance for Michel to keep making progress. If Wynn can continue to play like this — and for the first time in his brief career, stay healthy for a prolonged stretch of games — the Patriots’ offense might finally find its legs.
Carlos Hyde — I don’t get why teams don’t stick with the run against the Patriots. Their pass defense is stifling, while they’ve been susceptible to the run at times, most notably when Jackson (61 yards, every one of them mesmerizing) and Mark Ingram (115 yards on 15 carries) helped the Ravens rack up 210 yards on the ground on Nov. 3. Even this past weekend, Ezekiel Elliott, on the short list of the league’s best backs, started well, with 18 yards on his first three carries. He ended the day, in lousy weather suited for running the ball, with 86 yards on 21 attempts. The Texans, who are tied for sixth in rushing yards per game, have the personnel to have some success on the ground. Hyde, who came over from the Chiefs in the preseason after incumbent Lamar Miller tore his ACL, is a powerful runner who leads the Texas with 836 yards while averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Third-down back Duke Johnson has also been productive, averaging 5.4 yards on 65 attempts this season. Watson is also effective at operating the read-option, which has given the Patriots some trouble.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
It’s Thanksgiving week, which we all know is the best holiday there is. (I will hear your silly arguments for other holidays, then I will dismiss them rudely while gnawing a drumstick.) Family, food, football, friends — what could be better than that? Nothing, that’s what. Plus, as you’ll remember first-hand if you’re a Patriots fan older than, say, 27 years old, it was this time of year, during a Thanksgiving game, that Patriots fans were introduced to Tom Brady, Official NFL Quarterback (And Believe It Or Not, The Greatest You’ll Ever See). Sure, his NFL debut came in the final moments of a lousy 34-9 loss to the Lions on Thanksgiving 2000, and he completed just 1 of 3 passes (you’re a decent trivia question, Rod Rutledge). It was still the first time we saw Brady play quarterback in a real game for the Patriots, and for that reason alone his 6-yard passing performance in brief relief during a 25-point loss to Charlie Batch stands as a momentous occasion. So, let’s put it his way: Any Patriots fan that has a grievance about something trivial during the week of Thanksgiving is . . . well, you’re my grievance, man. You’re my grievance. And I don’t want grievances during this fine week. So, peace? Peace. And please pass the leftovers.
PREDICTION, OR WHY DID THEY GIVE AWAY JADEVEON CLOWNEY?
Wynn’s return and the signs of progress in the running game against Dallas may have foreshadowed a larger improvement in the Patriots’ offense — which ranks 17th in the league with 352.8 yards per game — as they head toward the playoffs. There is chance for further improvement this week in a different aspect of the offense.
Brady had the best 17-for-37, 190-yard passing day you’ll ever see against Dallas. His receivers missed at least a half-dozen catchable balls in the rain, and that group already was shorthanded with Mohamed Sanu (ankle) and Phillip Dorsett (concussion) sidelined.
If there was a blessing in their absences, it’s that it almost forced Brady to count on rookies N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers, and while they had their moments of inconsistency, they also had their moments of excellence, with Harry scoring the game’s lone touchdown and Meyers making four catches for 74 yards.
Now there’s something to build on, and the Texans have a defense that can be cooperative with what an opposing quarterback is trying to do. Houston’s defensive backfield is more beaten up than the Patriots’ receiving corps. Cornerbacks Bradley Roby and Johnathan Joseph are ailing, and the Texans have had to rely on discards such as recently signed former Buccaneers first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves.
The Texans are 25th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game (259.3), have compiled just 22 sacks (with J.J. Watt out for the year and Jadeveon Clowney gifted to Seattle), and have as many interceptions as a team (5) as Nathan Peterman threw in a half for the Bills two years ago. Should Sanu and/or Dorsett return to join Julian Edelman, Harry, and Meyers, this should be Brady’s most prolific passing day of the season — and a reminder that this team is more than a dominant defense and excellent special teams. Given the quality of the opposition, put it down as their best all-around win of the season. Patriots 30, Texans 19
Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore vs. Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins
During his chat with Patriots reporters Wednesday, Belichick praised Hopkins, the Texans’ three-time Pro Bowl receiver, as the ideal at the position. “I think he defines ‘NFL receiver,’ ’’ said Belichick. “If you open ‘NFL receiver’ in the dictionary, put his picture next to it.”
What Belichick didn’t say is that you’d never be able to get that page open if Stephon Gilmore were anywhere near it.
Hopkins is a wonderful player, one who excelled even when the Texans didn’t have competence at quarterback, and continues to excel now that they do. He has 81 catches for 839 yards and six touchdowns this season. He’s well on his way to his third season with 100-plus catches and fifth season of 1,000 yards or more.
With his size (he’s 6 feet 1 inch and looks about 3 inches taller) and stick-’em hands, he’s a challenge for any defense to defend. But the Patriots happen to have the best cornerback in the NFL on their roster in Gilmore, and anyone who suggests Jalen Ramsey is better at this point should be disregarded.
Gilmore has four interceptions this season and has not allowed a touchdown pass. Quarterbacks have a 40.6 percent passer rating throwing in his direction, and he’s coming off a game in which he caught more Dak Prescott passes (1) than did the receiver Gilmore was covering, Amari Cooper (zero catches for the first time as a Cowboy). That performance should catapult Gilmore to the front of the NFL Defensive Player of the Year race.
Locking down Hopkins again like he has in the past — the receiver has six catches for 85 yards in two games squaring off with Gilmore — should only bolster his case.
Chad Finn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.