The 10-2 New England Patriots travel to Houston to take on the 6-6 Texans in a game featuring a number of former Patriots players and coaches now on the opposing sideline. Aside from those connections, this is a game both teams will badly want. Houston is fighting for its playoff lives, while the Patriots have lost two straight and slipped from the top AFC seed all the way to third, which would mean no first-round bye.
The Patriots haven't lost three straight since 2002, but have certainly had their struggles in Houston, losing both the game and Wes Welker in Week 17 of 2009 and barely hanging on to beat a 2-10 Texans team by a score of 34-31 in '13. The Pats' offense struggled to move the ball last week against the Eagles without Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, and need to rediscover their magic.
It certainly won't be an easy task facing a talented Texans defense led by J.J. Watt and former Patriot Vince Wilfork. The Texans have won five of their last seven games, including their last three at home. Former Patriot Brian Hoyer has 18 touchdowns and six interceptions on the season with a 4-3 record overall. The Texans already knocked off the Bengals and a win over the Patriots would likely propel them to the playoffs.
New England at Houston
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Patriots -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. J.J. Watt
Watt is the best defensive player in the league and a must-watch player every week. Against the Patriots' depleted and shuffled offensive line he could cause some major problems. Watt should primarily face right tackle Marcus Cannon, who was the third-string tackle at the start of the season. Cannon is extremely vulnerable to a player of Watt's ability and will likely get help from tight end Michael Williams on most passing snaps. New England's young interior linemen, including rookies Tre Jackson and Shaq Mason should also be tantalizing to Watt. If there's one player who can single-handedly wreck the Patriots' offensive game plan it's him, and the recent play of New England's offensive line should have him licking his chops.
2. Patriots Defense Rising
Lost in the last two weeks of losses is the fact that New England's defense is finally getting healthy and actually playing quite well. Just 14 of the 35 points the Eagles scored were on the Pats' defense, and both came off quick-change turnovers. If the Patriots can get Dont'a Hightower back, it will put their defense at full strength for the first time since early October. With the Pats' offense likely to have issues with Watt and company, New England's defense could be the difference in this game.
3. Malcolm Butler vs. DeAndre Hopkins
There's little question Hopkins is the biggest playmaker on the Texans' offense and he'll likely see plenty of man coverage from second-year cornerback Butler. Butler has had a solid second season, but has often given up a big play or two per game. That could be deadly this week, and if Brian Hoyer starts connecting with Hopkins, the Texans could take command of the game. The Patriots know they have to stop Hopkins, but it might take more resources than they'd like. This will be an outstanding battle between two of the game's rising young stars.
Texans coach Bill O'Brien, along with the other former Patriots on his staff and team, know exactly what they're facing with the Bill Belichick Patriots coming to town. In many ways the Texans are a direct reflection of the Patriots and thus, O'Brien knows what it takes to knock them off -- no turnovers, minimizing mistakes, playing a full 60 minutes. But knowing and executing are two different things. The Patriots lost to the Eagles with four bad plays that they don't often make. They'll be locked in on getting back on track in Houston, and with Tom Brady getting more accustomed to his replacement parts, the Patriots should get back to their winning ways.