After being flexed into the Sunday Night Football slot, the New England Patriots will travel to Houston to face former offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien and former defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and the Texans. The Patriots are coming off consecutive losses for the first time since 2009 after a down game against Philadelphia. New England have not lost three straight games since 2002. Tom Brady is still playing at an MVP level despite a depleted receiving corps, who appear to be getting healthier. Brady will need all the help he can get against a strong defense like Houston’s. Houston are fighting to stay both in the wild card race and atop the AFC South and will need to win to stay in the mix. Crennel’s defense has been playing well, but had a weak game against the Bills. The offense is playing well and the Texans will provide a strong test for the defending champions.
Three Keys to the Game
Stopping J.J. Watt
Bill Belichick placed Watt in rare company earlier this week, comparing the reigning Defensive Player of the Year with the great Lawrence Taylor, who Belichick coached for 10 years as defensive coordinator for the New York Giants. Watt could have an LT-esque game against the Patriots thanks to a porous offensive line. Tom Brady was hit 13 times by the Eagles and was sacked four times. However, Watt broke his left hand at practice earlier in the week and missed the following practice session. Watt maintains that he will still play, but his injury might hold him back. And with Brady’s quick release, Watt can’t miss a step if he wants to bring Brady down.
New England’s injured offense
While Houston’s secondary may not be the Legion of Boom, they are still playing well, and rank third in passing defense. They held the Bengals, with their vast stable of weapons, to just six points a few weeks ago and held the Saints without a touchdown for the first time since 2005. The Patriots will still be without Julian Edelman, while Rob Gronkowski is listed as questionable. Fellow tight end Scott Chandler is also listed as questionable, as is receiver Danny Amendola. Yet even with those injuries, Brady has still led the league’s top passing offense as well as leading the league in points per game. But the Texans’ secondary looks healthy, and the Patriots don’t have a weapon like Sammy Watkins available to take over the game.
Protecting Brian Hoyer
Houston’s offense has been efficient and safe over the past few weeks thanks to good play from Hoyer, the emergence of DeAndre Hopkins, and creative designs featuring Cecil Shorts. The running game hasn’t been brilliant, but has been serviceable in Arian Foster’s absence. But keeping Hoyer upright is still a top priority. The Patriots have a strong pass rush, and rank second in the league with 36 sacks. However, like most units in New England, the pass rush is banged up. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung are listed as questionable, while defensive end Chandler Jones is listed as probable despite an abdomen injury. Unless the Patriots can get pressure on Hoyer, Houston could win the game if the defense contains Brady.
Match-up to watch
Malcolm Butler vs DeAndre Hopkins
Butler has been solid in coverage this season, especially against top receivers. He covered Antonio Brown well in the season opener and held Odell Beckham to just three catches for 17 yards after allowing an 87 yard touchdown early on. Hopkins has been one of the league’s top receivers this season, and is third in the league with 1169 yards despite having quarterbacks like Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett and T.J. Yates throwing him the ball. All of the other receivers in the top five have a franchise quarterback throwing them the ball. If Butler can shut Hopkins down, the Patriots should win, especially with Hopkins carrying a hamstring injury.
New England Patriots
The Patriots have historically bounced back well from consecutive losses in the Belichick era. If Rob Gronkowski plays, they have a better chance to win. But if he doesn’t, Tom Brady is still good enough to beat the Texans and is adept at dealing with weak offensive lines and second-tier weapons. Expect the Patriots to narrowly get back on track.