AFC division leaders face off on SNF
For the fifth straight year, the New England Patriots and Houston Texans will meet in the regular season on "Sunday Night Football." The Patriots (10-1) are fresh off a grind-it-out 13-9 win over the Cowboys last Sunday in which New England's defense held the NFL's top-ranked scoring offense without a touchdown in wet and windy Gillette Stadium. The Pats are tops in the AFC East (surprise!) and currently hold the No. 1 overall seed in the conference.
The Texans (7-4) are coming off the biggest win of their season, knocking off division rival Indianapolis, 20-17, on "Thursday Night Football." The win gives the Texans a full game lead over the Colts and Titans this week, and puts them in the driver's seat for a second consecutive AFC South title.
New England at Houston
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 1 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. New England's pass defense
The Patriots' defense has only allowed 14 or more points in a game once this season — three weeks ago when Lamar Jackson and the Ravens put up 37 points in New England's lone loss of the year. Deshaun Watson is the closest thing to Jackson that the Pats will see the rest of the regular season, but don't expect a repeat of what happened against Baltimore.
Statistically speaking, the Patriots' pass defense is hands-down the best in the league, ranking first in first downs allowed through the air (24 percent), average completion yards allowed (5.4), interceptions (20), touchdown passes allowed (4), third-down conversions (19 percent), and second in passing yards allowed per game (256). Schematically speaking, the Pats are better than anyone else at taking an offense's best weapons away, as evidenced by Amari Cooper being held reception-less last week thanks to amazing man-to-man coverage by cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
With wide receiver Will Fuller limited due to a lingering hamstring issue, Watson is more likely to focus on targeting DeAndre Hopkins in the short-to-mid-range passing game as opposed to downfield if Fuller were 100 percent. This plays perfectly into Bill Belichick's hands. Hopefully, Fuller is ready to go and we see a fully loaded Texans' offense against the Patriots' stout D.
2. Can Patriots' offense find its rhythm?
Lucky for New England's offense, it hasn't needed to score a ton of points to win games this season thanks to their impenetrable defense. While the Pats currently rank fifth in the league in scoring offense, that's mostly due to a rather easy first half of their schedule (Washington, Jets twice, Dolphins, Browns, Giants). The last three weeks, Tom Brady and company have averaged just 16.6 points against teams with stronger defenses (Ravens, Eagles, Cowboys).
Sunday night, the Pats have an opportunity to right the ship as they face a Texans defense that has been limited by injuries all season long, especially in the secondary and with the loss of J.J. Watt. Since losing Watt a few weeks ago, the Texans have dropped from the NFL's second-best run defense (84 ypg) to 17th (108). While the Patriots are still a pass-first offense, their running game has shown signs of life with the return of tackle Isaiah Wynn. Against Dallas, running back Sony Michel was able to find somewhat of a groove, picking up 85 yards on 20 carries in nasty conditions as the Patriots surpassed the 100-yard mark as a team for just the fourth time this season.
If the Pats can find a way to establish a ground game, that would take the pressure off a noticeably regressed Brady and battered offensive line that has been struggling with pass protection all season. In the last three games, Brady has just two touchdown passes and a passer rating of 72.8. While some of that falls on Brady's natural regression (I mean, he's 42) and his O-line, it should also be pointed out that the Patriots simply do not have a ton of uber-talented offensive weapons outside of Julian Edelman.
Sunday night could be a perfect opportunity for Brady and his offense to find their old form against a wounded and fledgling Texans defense.
3. Texans' 3-headed rushing attack
Three weeks ago, the Ravens provided the Texans with the blueprint for beating the Patriots — run the football and run it a lot. Of Baltimore's 65 offensive plays against New England, 41 were designed runs as the Ravens amassed 210 yards and three touchdowns on the ground in the 17-point win.
The Texans are likely the only other team in the NFL that can match what Baltimore can do offensively — at least personnel-wise. Houston's leading rusher, Carlos Hyde (836 yards, 4,8 avg., 4 TDs) is the same type of power back as Mark Ingram (115 yards, TD vs. NE) and Watson (301 yds., 5 TDs) is almost as dynamic of a runner as Jackson (2 rushing TDs vs. NE). Watson's ability to run should give head coach Bill O'Brien plenty of opportunities to keep New England's defense guessing with several different read-option looks. The Texans also have third-down specialist Duke Johnson to add as another running-game wrinkle.
While this matchup seems favorable on paper for the Texans from an offensive standpoint, we've all learned to never bet against Bill Belichick by now, right? Especially against his own former coaches? Right? Right. Look for the Belichick-led defense to dial up a ton of different blitzes to keep Deshaun Watson in the pocket and under pressure all night long. I like New England in a close, low-scoring tilt.
Prediction: Patriots 20, Texans 18
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.