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Two of the AFC’s top teams square off tonight with playoff implications at stake
The Houston Texans and New England Patriots will wrap up Week 14 in the NFL when two of the AFC’s top teams meet up tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. The Texans (11-1) currently lead the Patriots (9-3) and the rest of the conference in the quest for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Besides trying to gain ground on the Texans for that coveted top seed, the Patriots would like nothing more than to send a signal to the visiting team that they are the ones who currently wear the AFC crown. This is especially the case considering it’s entirely possible these two teams will meet up with another a little later on, say on Jan. 20 in the AFC Championship Game?
When the Houston Texans have the ball:
Houston’s offense is fifth in the league with 389.6 yards per game and they are second only to New England in points per game with 29.3. The Texans rely more on the run than any other team, as they lead in rushing attempts (413) and are sixth in yards (142.5) per game. Arian Foster leads all players in carries (283), is fifth in yards with 1,102, and leads the NFL with 15 total touchdowns (13 rush, 2 pass). The Texans’ offense is not one-dimensional by any stretch, however, as quarterback Matt Schaub is responsible for leading the league’s 10th-ranked passing attack. The Texans are averaging more than 247 yards passing per game, as Schaub has thrown for 3,062 yards with 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Schaub’s favorite target is wide receiver Andre Johnson, who is seventh in the league in receptions (74), fifth in receiving yards (1,114) and is averaging 15.1 yards per reception. Schaub also likes to find tight end Owen Daniels, who has 50 catches on the season and leads the team with six touchdown receptions. The Texans’ offensive line not only gets the job done opening up holes for Foster and the running game, but also in protecting Schaub. The line has allowed only 15 sacks, tying the Giants for fewest in the league. The Texans also have done a good job protecting the ball, especially for a team that runs it so much, with only two fumbles lost and a total of 12 turnovers on the season.
New England’s defense may not look that great on paper, but it has gotten the job done consistently this season. The Patriots are ranked near the bottom (26th) in terms of yards allowed (380.8) per game, but are tied for 14th in scoring defense at 21.7 points per game. Some of this can be attributed to the unit’s ability to generate turnovers. The Patriots have forced 33 turnovers, including a league-high 19 fumbles. They have generated the second-most takeaways in the league and have turned five of these into defensive scores. The Patriots have done a good job of slowing down an opponent’s running game, as they are eighth in the league in rushing defense (100.8 ypg). Some of this success, however, can be attributed to the fact that teams tend to end up throwing the ball more than running it against the Patriots. To that end, the Patriots are No. 28 in passing defense, giving up nearly 280 yards through the air per game. To be fair, the defense is somewhat a victim of the offense’s success, as Brady and Co. will often jump out to big leagues, forcing opponents to abandon the run and exclusively pass the ball in hopes of trying to catch up. The Patriots do have 26 sacks on the season, which not only helps slow down a passing attack, but in the Patriots’ case also presents opportunities to force the quarterback to fumble the ball while being taken down.
When the New England Patriots have the ball:
New England’s offense is No. 1 in the NFL in both total offense (426.3 ypg) and scoring offense (35.8 ppg). The Patriots are eighth in passing offense (285.8 ypg), which is not surprising with Tom Brady as your quarterback. Brady is the league’s fifth-rated passer as he’s thrown for 3,537 yards (fifth in NFL) with 25 touchdown passes (fourth) and just four interceptions, which is tied for the fewest among qualified quarterbacks. Brady lost tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is tied for the league lead with 10 touchdown catches, to a broken forearm a few weeks ago, but he still has wide receiver Wes Welker. Welker is leading the NFL with 92 catches and is seventh in yards with 1,046. He has just four touchdown catches, but that’s more representative of Brady’s ability to spread the ball around. Seven different Patriots have caught a touchdown pass with six of those having two or more. Although the Patriots are known more for being a passing offense, they actually are second only to the Texans in rushing attempts (401), ninth in yards (133.6 ypg) and lead the way with 19 rushing touchdowns. Stevan Ridley has been responsible for most of the damage on the ground, as he’s seventh in the league with 1,010 rushing yards and tied for second with nine rushing touchdowns. The offensive line has done a good job of protecting Brady, as it has allowed 19 sacks, tied for second-fewest in the AFC. The Patriots also have committed just nine turnovers, the fewest in the NFL, including only five fumbles.
Houston’s defense is fifth overall in terms of yards allowed (322.6) and is fourth in scoring defense at 18.4 points per game. The Texans have allowed more than 25 points in a game only three times this season. Houston has been extremely stout against the run this season, ranking second in rushing defense. The Texans have allowed more than 100 yards rushing in only three games and only one running back (Chris Johnson) has reached the century mark against them. The defense also has allowed a total of two rushing touchdowns, and both of these came in the Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit. The Texans are No. 19 in passing defense, giving up an average of 235 passing yards per game. They have, however, been a little more susceptible in this area recently. Aaron Rodgers gashed the Texans for 338 yards and six touchdowns back in Week 6, Houston’s only loss thus far, but the defense has surrendered more than 300 yards passing in each of the past three games. One of those games was the Turkey Day matchup with Detroit and Matthew Stafford that went into overtime, but the other two quarterbacks who hung more than 300 on the Texans were Jacksonville’s Chad Henne and Tennessee’s Jake Locker. The Texans will need to perform better in pass defense or run the risk of Brady shredding them. A potential equalizer for this could be the Texans’ pass rush, which has produced 36 sacks, the third-most in the NFL. Defensive Player of the Year candidate J.J. Watt is the one to watch here, as he is second in the league with 16.5 sacks and also has batted down or deflected 15 passes. The Texans, like the Patriots, also do a good job forcing turnovers. They have 26 takeaways on the season, second only to the Patriots in the AFC, including 12 forced fumbles.
This is without question THE game of Week 14, and has all the makings of being an instant classic. Both Houston and New England have already clinched playoff spots (the Patriots have already won the AFC East crown), and enter tonight’s game with matching six-game winning streaks. Even though it’s highly likely these two could end up playing again in the playoffs, I don’t think it’s going to take away the intensity and competitiveness for this game one bit. And that’s especially the case for the Texans, who are already calling this the most important game in the franchise’s history, and are probably still smarting from their terrible showing at home in Week 6 against Green Bay. The Texans lost to the Packers 42-24 in front of a national primetime audience and aren’t looking for a repeat performance tonight. On the other hand you have the Patriots, the defending AFC champions who would like nothing more than to make a statement to the new kid on the block about who is still top dog in the conference. It is just one game, but the winner walks away with a ton of confidence as the regular season winds down. The Patriots and the Texans have the No. 1 and 2 turnover differentials in the AFC, respectively, and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if a key miscue ends up deciding this one. In the end, I think the Texans’ offense will be able to make enough plays through the air and the defense will be able to turn just enough Patriot drives away from the end zone to earn the victory.
Texans 27, Patriots 24