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Ten things you have to know about Patriots-Texans

11.30.13 at 11:18 am ET
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Aqib Talib has a sizable challenge in Andre Johnson. (AP)

Aqib Talib has a sizable challenge in Andre Johnson. (AP)

Here’s everything you need to know about Sunday’s Patriots-Texans game.

Our three favorite matchups on the afternoon:

1. Quarterback Tom Brady against the Texans pass defense – As miserable as the last nine games have been for Houston (2-9), the pass defense has actually been pretty good. A sizable portion of that is because teams have gotten good leads on the Texans and they’ve been more inclined to run the ball (Houston is 22nd in the league against the run at 118.5 yards per game allowed), but there’s also something to the fact that the Texans defensive front has worked well with the secondary when it comes to slowing down opposing passing games. In their 11 games, only four passers have gone over 200 yards against Houston (Andrew Luck tops the lot with 271 passing yards), and the Texans are in the Top 10 in several major passing defense categories, including total passing yards allowed (first, 1,890), completion percentage against (seventh at 58.1) and yards per attempt (eighth, 6.7). Believe it or not, those are some of the best defensive numbers Brady will face all season.

2. The Patriots offensive line against defensive lineman J.J. Watt – As bad as this season has been for the Texans, Watt has been immense, solidifying his spot as a bonafide Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He’s a transformative presence who can make life miserable for the New England offensive line. Pro Football Focus has him credited with 10 sacks (tied for the top spot among all 3-4 defensive ends), 24 quarterback hits (best at his position) and 26 quarterback hurries (fifth at his position). Look for the Patriots to try and get after Watt with multiple looks up front in hopes of slowing him down. For what it’s worth, the 6-foot-5, 289-pounder enters Sunday’s game against the Patriots with a five-game sack streak. (In his two games against New England last season, he was held to 0.5 sacks.) One other thing to keep in mind — one of the things that’s allowed the New England offensive line to have some measure of success as of late is a renewed emphasis by Brady on getting the ball out as quickly as possible. A quick release is always paramount, but even more so against an overwhelming defensive presence like Watt.

3. Wide receiver Andre Johnson against cornerback Aqib Talib – Provided that Talib is set to go — the hip has remained a question as of late, and he’s been limited all week in practice — this should be a really good matchup between two of the better players at their respective positions. Johnson has struggled over the course of the season, but you can chalk a lot of that up to inconsistent quarterbacking play. Even with the issues the Texans have under center, he’s still one of the best in the game, as the 6-foot-3, 230-pounder has 74 catches on 119 targets for 1,002 yards (fourth in the NFL) and five touchdowns. Johnson is the kind of guy that Talib was brought in to try and slow down, a long, lean deep threat. Look for Talib to try and get a little physical with Johnson — jam him and get in his face to try and slow him down off the line. Talib and the Patriots were able to do a good job “limiting” Johnson in their two meetings last year, holding him to eight catches on 95 yards in each game. He got decent numbers, but was fundamentally a nonfactor in both contests.

4. Under-the-radar opponent Patriots fans need to know – Keshawn Martin. The wide receiver also works as a punt and kick returner, and has put up pretty good numbers as a special teamer over the course of the first 11 games. The 5-foot-11, 194-pounder out of Michigan State is ninth in the league in kick return average at 26 yards per opportunity. While he’s not as consistent when it comes to punt returns (16th overall at 8.5 yards per return), he does have an explosive element to his game that makes him difficult to contain — he’s one of only 10 guys in the league this year to take one all the way back. He’s not a part of the regular rotation at receiver, but still has 11 catches on 21 targets for 148 yards on the year.


5. By the numbers: 2. The number of rushing touchdowns the Texans have through the first 11 games of the season. It’s second worst in the league, only ahead of Cleveland’s one. Arian Foster and Ben Tate each have one. (One other stat worth passing along: Much has been made about the third-quarter struggles the Patriots have occasionally suffered this season, but New England appears to have broken out of its rut with good third quarters against the Steelers, Dolphins and Broncos, and now have 57 third-quarter points this season. The five-plus points per game average isn’t terrific, but it’s much better than it was earlier in the year. Meanwhile, the Texans are a hot mess just after halftime — they have 29 third-quarter points, including just three third-quarter points in the last three weeks.)

6. Quote of note – “They have a lot of the same guys they had last year. We’re not even concerned about the record. You look at what they can do defensively and the kind of playmakers they have. … They have probably the best front we’ve faced all season.” — Brady on the Texans’ defense. (Although this quote from Johnson is also fairly illustrative of Houston’s season to this point.)

7. Patriots fans should be worried about … something odd happening. If the Texans can force a turnover early and turn it into points or manage to make something happen on special teams with Martin or catch a break with a New England mistake, this one could get interesting. Unless that happens, there’s very little likelihood of the Patriots losing this game.

8. Texans fans should be worried about … just about everything, but in particular, running back Shane Vereen. Vereen is a well-known multidimensional threat, but his workload has increased dramatically since he returned in Week 11 from his wrist injury — according to Pro Football Focus, he was in on 47 percent of the snaps against the Panthers, and that number was bumped up to 52 percent last week against the Broncos. Look for even bigger numbers this week: In two games against the Texans last season, Vereen had 20 touches (15 carries, 5 catches) for 164 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. That’s an average of 8.2 yards per opportunity. (And that was when Houston was really good.) The matchup difficulties presented by Vereen, combined with the uncertain situation surrounding Stevan Ridley, should mean Vereen will get a lot of chances against the Texans.

9. One more thing – The myth of the trap game figures to loom large on Sunday, particularly with the Patriots coming off one of their most remarkable wins in recent history against the Broncos. But with precious few exceptions, New England has done well when it comes to avoiding those missteps, particularly late in the season. (Frankly, it was surprising we didn’t hear more cautionary tales about late-season upsets/traps, particularly the December 2004 loss to the Dolphins in South Florida.) There’s always the possibility of something odd happening — a turnover or two, a special teams gaffe or an unforeseen injury — but providing that nothing out of the ordinary happens and the Patriots stay on point in all three areas, New England should win.

10. Prediction – At the start of the season, this shaped up to be one of the marquee games on the Patriots schedule, but now, it’s shaping up to be just another pit stop on the road to the playoffs for New England. (The network execs knew what they were doing when they flexed this one to 1 p.m. from 4:25 p.m.) One thing you can say about Houston is that if you turn on the film, you can see certain players like Watt still playing hard and trying to squeeze as much as they can out of what has become a lost season. But in the end, the Texans simply don’t have enough of those guys. The Patriots should be able to take advantage of the fact that Houston has become notorious for slow starts in the first and third quarters (the Texans average less than four points per game in the first quarter and less than three points per game in the third quarter) to jump to a lead and then manage the game with a steady and consistent ground attack that should help to squeeze the life out of Houston. The Talib-Johnson and Watt-New England o-line matchups should be fun ones, but in the end, this sets up to be an eminently winnable game for the Patriots. New England 31, Houston 14.

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