|Patriots Potential Playoff Opponents: Houston Texans||12.27.11 at 9:17 pm ET|
With the Patriots securely in the postseason, it’s time to start sizing up their possible postseason opponents. This is part of a weeklong series of features on the rest of the AFC playoff teams. We’ve already profiled the Baltimore Ravens. Today, we’ve got a look at the Houston Texans:
The skinny: If the Texans were ever going to win the AFC South, this was the year: without Peyton Manning, the Colts were down, Tennessee was rebuilding and Jacksonville started slowly and made a coaching change. Houston took advantage, and now, they enter the final week of the regular season at 10-5, having already clinched the AFC South championship. (They’re currently locked in as the No. 3 playoff seed in the AFC.) They have some impressive wins on their resume, including victories over the Steelers (17-10), Atlanta (17-10) and Cincinnati (20-19). However, they also have more than enough stinkers, including defeats to Oakland, Carolina and Indianapolis. From a distance, the Texans appear to be a competitive young team that has had some occasional struggles with success.
Offense: Houston is down to its third-string quarterback, and while T.J. Yates (78-for-130 for 902 yards with three TDs and three INTs) has played relatively well down the stretch, there are plenty of holes in his game. Offensively, the Texans are powered by running back Arian Foster, who has 1,224 yards on 278 carries for 10 touchdowns and a 4.4 yards per carry average. Houston is anticipating the return of wide receiver Andre Johnson (six games, 31 catches, 471 yards, two touchdowns) for the postseason, and if he is at full strength (he’s been slowed by a hamstring problem), he gives the Texans a pair of dynamic skill position players who are among the best at their position.
Defense: Thanks to linebackers Connor Barwin (11.5 sacks) and Brooks Reed (six sacks) and defensive end J.J. Watt (5.5 sacks), the Texans do a good job getting after the quarterback. They’re one of the best teams in the league when it comes to the rest of their defense: second in average total yards allowed (280.7), tied for second in the league against the pass (184 yards per game), fourth in the league against the run (96.7 yards per game) and fourth in the league in points per game allowed (17).
Why the Patriots should be afraid: The Texans do an excellent job running the football and playing good, solid, fundamental defense out of their 3-4 base. They rarely beat themselves, and, as previously stated, have some of the best young skill position players in the game in Foster and Johnson.
Why the Patriots shouldn’t be afraid: The Texans certainly aren’t peaking at the right time. Entering the regular-season finale, they’ve lost a pair of ugly games, first dropping a 28-13 decision at home to Carolina, and then following that up with a bad 19-16 defeat to woeful Indy last week. For what it’s worth, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has missed the last two games while recovering from kidney and gallbladder surgery.) Then, there’s the fact that Houston will be making the first postseason appearance in franchise history. And while Yates has performed well at times, there have also been plenty of times where he’s looked like a third-string quarterback. (Houston is averaging 16.5 points in the four games under Yates, after putting up 27 points per game when Matt Schaub led the team.)
One guy to look out for: Tight end Owen Daniels is no Rob Gronkowski, but he’s quietly developed into a steady, reliable target in the Houston passing game. Through 15 games, he has 54 catches for 677 yards and three touchdowns. The Patriots have been burned at inopportune moments by tight ends this season (Heath Miller, Jake Ballard), and Daniels is in that same mold of sneaky, underrated pass catchers who can burn you if you forget about them.
Potential playoff villain: Barwin. This guy was our 2009 draft binky a few years ago (he was on the Patriots’ radar screen), and he’s developed into one of the most unheralded pass rushers in the league with the Texans. He leads the team in sacks and according to Pro Football Focus, he’s tied for first on the team with 15 quarterback hits and tied for second on the team with 25 quarterback hits.
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