It wouldn't be hyperbole to say that a Texans victory on Saturday night in Foxborough would be one of the biggest upsets in NFL playoff history. Of course, the Patriots being favorites in a playoff game is nothing new, especially at home where they are 15-3 during the Bill Belichcik/Tom Brady era. What is unusual is that Houston enters Gillette Stadium as a 16-point underdog.
If being one of the biggest playoff underdogs in the last 40 seasons isn’t enough motivation for the Texans, then perhaps avenging an earlier loss to New England will do the trick. Perhaps you recall the Houston didn’t just lose at home to the Patriots way back in Week 3, the Texans lost to a New England team that had rookie Jacoby Brissett at quarterback with Tom Brady suspended and backup Jimmy Garoppolo out because of an injured shoulder. Brissett himself was hurt, playing with torn thumb ligaments, but it didn’t matter as the Patriots shut out Houston 27-0 to kick off Week 3.
A little more than three months later, the Texans would even their record this season against third-string rookie quarterbacks with a playoff win against the Derek Carr-less Raiders last week, 27-14. Oakland was resigned to playing rookie Connor Cook, after backup Matt McGloin injured his shoulder in Week 17. Houston capitalized on the Raiders’ misfortunes, intercepting Cook three times and limiting Oakland to just 64 rushing yards and 2.9 yards per play.
Unless the Texans’ No. 1-ranked defense can completely stifle Brady (who is a little bit better than Cook or Brissett) and the Pats’ offense, their playoff run is likely to be short lived.
AFC Divisional Playoff: Houston at New England
Kickoff: Saturday Jan. 14 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Patriots -16
Three Things to Watch
1. Pressuring Tom Brady
Without three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, the Houston defense hasn’t missed a beat, leading the NFL in both total (203 ypg) and passing yards (139 ypg) allowed. Some of this success can be attributed to the presence of former No.1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. After making the switch to full-time defensive end, Clowney has been able to avoid the injuries that plagued his first few seasons and turned in a Pro Bowl-worthy campaign. He recorded a sack in each of the last three regular season games and was a constant force last week against Oakland, including a highlight-reel interception that set up Houston’s first touchdown.
But if the Texans are going to have a shot at beating the Patriots at home, they will need more than just Clowney to make an impact on defense. Expect Houston defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, a Bill Belichick disciple, to dial up as many blitzes as possible to force Brady into errant throws. Look for Crennel to blitz outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus all night long, as well as inside linebacker Brian Cushing up the middle.
2. Brock Has to be Better
It’s fair to say that Brock Osweiler has not lived up to the $72 million contract he signed this offseason after spurning his former team, the Denver Broncos, to be the quarterback of the future in Houston. Osweiler was benched a few weeks ago in favor of third-year pro Tom Savage, but got the job back after Savage was sidelined with a concussion. Osweiler responded last week with one of his better performances, which isn’t saying much, completing 14 of 25 attempts for 168 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions.
There’s no way around it — to beat the Patriots and their top-ranked scoring defense on their own turf, Osweiler has to have the game of his life. Completing only 56 percent of his passes and throwing for just one touchdown won’t be enough. Osweiler will have to be near-perfect, utilizing his best target, wide receivers, DeAndre Hopkins (5 rec., 56 yds., TD last week) as much as possible and hope that the Texans’ offensive line can create lanes for running back Lamar Miller. Much easier said than done.
3. Pats on a Mission
Year after year New England has been a Super Bowl contender under Bill Belichick. Having reached the AFC Championship Game for the last five consecutive seasons, the Patriots are the model of NFL consistency. But this season is different. This season the chip on their shoulder is as big as the Lombardi Trophy and Tom Brady’s ego combined.
As if the desire to win a fifth Super Bowl under Belichick wasn’t motivation enough, the thought of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell having to hand over the trophy to owner Robert Kraft, Belichick, and Brady after the embarrassing, elongated Deflategate scandal left Brady suspended for four games, would be the sweetest victory of all.
Since Brady’s return, the Patriots have gone 11-1, currently riding a seven-game winning streak, all while No. 12 has forced his way into the NFL MVP conversation with more than 3,500 passing yards, 28 touchdowns and just two interceptions in that span. The road to a sixth straight conference championship game seems to be paved quite nicely for the vendetta-charged Patriots, starting with Houston on Saturday night in Foxborough.
It’s no secret that the Patriots are the class of the AFC this season. With the NFL’s No. 1 scoring defense (15.6 ppg), the third-ranked scoring offense (27.6 ppg), and the game’s best head coach and quarterback combo of all-time, the AFC crown is once again New Engand’s to lose this postseason. Stranger things have happened, but it’s hard to not expect Tom Brady and the motivated Patriots to put a hurting on the Texans.
Athlon Editors and Contributors Predictions
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.