Bill O’Brien returns to his old haunt in New England for the first time to face old mentor Bill Belichick and the Patriots in another juicy primetime matchup on "Thursday Night Football." The pair met last year in December at NRG Stadium for a Houston loss but this year’s meeting could be a potential playoff preview for a pair of 2-0 teams that have gotten off to an impressive start in two very different ways.
The Texans avenged their humiliating playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs from last season on Sunday thanks to yet another stellar defensive effort combined with more positive signs on offense. New quarterback Brock Osweiler is still learning the ins and outs of O’Brien’s offense (two interceptions last week) but has delivered a big vertical passing threat when teaming up with DeAndre Hopkins and speedy rookie Will Fuller. Even with J.J. Watt not quite 100 percent healthy, he’s still helping one of the best pass rushes in the league and the emergence of Jadeveon Clowney and Benardrick McKinney is one Texans fans have been waiting for.
On the other side, New England is on the downhill slope of a four-game stretch without Tom Brady and sitting pretty with two wins. However, the status of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is up in the air after he left last week’s game against Miami with a shoulder injury. The next man up appears to be rookie Jacoby Brissett and, with the team not yet signing another signal-caller off the street, possibly even Julian Edelman as the backup. The Patriots' defense has looked sharp in their first two games when the offense has been productive but will be pressured to step up its game this week given the question marks on the other side of the ball.
New England is 5-1 all-time against the expansion franchise in Houston and won last year’s late-season meeting in runaway fashion. However, Osweiler did beat the Pats last November during his first NFL start (for Denver) by rallying for 17 fourth-quarter points to force overtime and eventually pull off the upset in the extra frame. Be prepared to hear plenty on the broadcast about O’Brien, who was on Belichick’s staff from 2007-11 before leaving to become head coach at Penn State.
Houston at New England
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 22 at 8:25 p.m. ET
Broadcast Channels: CBS, NFL Network, Twitter
Spread: Houston -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Quarterback shuffle
Bill Belichick is being Bill Belichick and playing coy as to the status of Jimmy Garoppolo but all signs are pointing to rookie Jacoby Brissett taking over under center for the Patriots. The game certainly seemed to shift against the Dolphins last week when Garoppolo went to the locker room, with Miami roaring back to make it interesting as New England's offense seemed to stall out a bit. Brissett should benefit from more reps and a game plan tailored to his strengths but his first start being against the Texans' defense (league-leading nine sacks) is not exactly going to allow him to ease into the role.
2. Texans’ downfield attack
DeAndre Hopkins has emerged to become a true No. 1 receiver in the league and it appears he will have the opportunity to face even more favorable coverages thanks to Will Fuller’s hot start. The rookie has topped the 100-yard mark in both of the team’s first two outings and has become a clear deep threat that has to be respected every time he takes off. The Texans’ young receiving corps is still getting on the same page with Osweiler but has an incredibly high ceiling in 2016 thanks to their ability to stretch the field.
3. Establishing the run
The Patriots are familiar with Lamar Miller’s ability to break a big run from his days with the Dolphins but the free agent pickup hasn’t quite found his footing in Bill O’Brien’s offense just yet. He is averaging just 3.5 yards a carry through two games and the team will certainly look to establish him early to get the offense in rhythm. On the other sideline, you can bet New England will be looking to get LeGarrette Blount going with the quarterback position in flux.
We’ve had a pair of entertaining and interesting "Thursday Night Football" games to begin the season and there’s nothing to suggest that this one won’t continue that trend. This matchup has a little bit of everything on the field, with stars like J.J. Watt in focus during primetime to the fantastic coaching clash as Bill Belichick and his star pupil Bill O’Brien match wits. This isn’t just a meeting of potential AFC playoff contenders but a pairing of two teams that have legitimate designs on bringing home the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season.
It’s also a meeting of two teams with very different strengths and very different weaknesses. The Texans’ active defense is one of the best in the NFL at getting to the quarterback and should be licking their chops at facing a Patriots offensive line that has had its struggles up front. New England’s defense has been solid against the run but has struggled mightily through the air — not exactly what you want to hear when a big-armed quarterback and trio of speedy wideouts are coming to town for a big showdown during a short week of practice.
All of those factors have helped to contribute to the Patriots being a home underdog for the first time in what seems like forever. Don’t put it past Belichick and company to get the team in position to pull off a win in the face of adversity (see Week 1 victory over the Arizona Cardinals) but it seems like the Texans will have just enough talent on the field Thursday night to sneak out of Gillette Stadium with a narrow victory.
Prediction: Texans 23, Patriots 20
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.