After a thrilling come-from-behind win on Sunday night, the New England Patriots will look to avoid a letdown this weekend in Houston. Last Sunday’s victory over Denver was a reminder of how effectively Tom Brady and the Patriots can play in the cold weather. The team will claim the AFC’s 2 seed (at worst) if they win the rest of their games, which should provide ample motivation against some less than stellar competition remaining on the schedule.
This has been a nightmare season for the Houston Texans, who are aiming to avoid losing their tenth straight game after a 2-0 start to the year. This is still a talented team, but injuries and ineffective quarterback play have really taken their toll in 2013. A victory over a Patriots team that beat them twice last year and knocked them out of the playoffs would easily be the highlight of Houston’s season.
Andre Johnson vs. Aqib Talib
Andre Johnson is still one of the NFL’s best receivers, and his age has yet to show on the field. Johnson trails only Brandon Marshall and Calvin Johnson with a cumulative +17.6 grade, and ranks fourth among receivers in Yards per Route Run, at 2.39. Johnson has also been a model of consistency, grading negatively in just one game this season. Though his frustration with his team’s struggles has boiled over at times this year, Johnson is an elite player that will certainly be the focus of New England’s defensive game plan this week.
After losing both his composure and the one on one matchup against longtime NFC South rival Steve Smith on Monday Night Football, Aqib Talib rebounded nicely last week with a solid performance against Demaryius Thomas. Talib has missed some time with a hip injury this year, but he has lined up against the opposing team’s best receiver in nearly every game that he has played, and excelled in that role. Only one corner has a lower Passer Rating against than Talib’s 47.4. He will likely be called upon to shut down Johnson with very little safety help this week. This is an excellent matchup, pitting two of the most physical players at their position against each other.
JJ Watt vs. Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell
There is no doubt that the interior of the Patriots’ offensive line has been the weak spot of the offense in 2013. Center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly (-6.6) have both regressed since 2012. Wendell’s -9.1 pass blocking grade is the second worst of any center, though he seems to have improved his once excellent run blocking in recent weeks. Both of these players will need to bring their ‘A’ game this week against JJ Watt, who may be the best player in the NFL.
JJ Watt has been absolutely incredible for a second straight year. He has proven to be unblockable in both the running and passing games. Watt leads all 3-4 defensive ends in both Pass Rushing Productivity and Run Stop Percentage, and has a cumulative grade of +83.9. Cameron Jordan ranks second at the position with an excellent +27.9, a figure that is dwarfed by Watt’s run defense grade (+45.0) and pass rushing grade (+40.1). Houston’s best chance of winning this week is another excellent showing from Watt.
Chris Meyers vs. Chris Jones and Joe Vellano
Texans’ center Chris Meyers is currently our highest graded center, with a +18.6 score that is highlighted by a +14.4 run blocking grade. Houston typically runs straight up the middle, taking advantage of Meyer’s strong play. As a team, the Texans have run 57 times through each A gap, the most rushes through any gap this year. After the beating that Denver’s interior line put on the Patriots’ run defense last week, expect Houston to try to gain yards in exactly the same fashion.
New England was gashed in the run game versus Denver, with the majority of the damage coming right up the middle. Though some of this was probably part of the game plan (keeping the ball out of Peyton’s hands), there is no disguising the difficulty that New England has had at defensive tackle this year. Both Joe Vellano and Chris Jones are better pass rushers than run defenders, but they have struggled all year against the run. Jones is currently our lowest graded defensive tackle (-21.2), and Vellano (-7.5) is not far behind. Houston is still a run-based offense who does their best work right up the middle; New England simply has to be better this week than they were in the Denver game.