8:25 PM EST, NBC – Line: New England -4.5, Over/Under: 45.5
A potential Playoff Preview is on tap from Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas tonight, as the Texans host the New England Patriots on Sunday Night Football. My, oh my, what a difference two weeks makes in the NFL; just two short weeks ago, the Patriots (10-2, 1st in AFC East) were one of two remaining undefeated teams, holding a vice grip on the No. One Overall Seed therefore earning home field as a result. However, back-to-back losses have significantly dropped the defending champions down the pecking order, as they now sit Third in the Conference behind Cincinnati and Denver, and would miss that all-important First Round Bye awarded to the top two seeds. Why is it important for the Pats to secure a week off, you ask? As has been the case with the majority of their contemporaries around the league, injuries have rocked their roster, it just took longer to make a difference. This last month has gone a long ways towards taxing Head Coach Bill Belichick’s Next Man Up mantra, as seemingly every week, another prominent Patriot fell to some new malady. First it was versatile Tailback Dion Lewis, who tore his ACL back on November 8th in a 27-10 victory over the Redskins, followed Receiver Julian Edelman, whose broken foot has him sidelined for an indefinite period of time, though he has started to practice again he’s still a ways from returning. Then Linebackers Dont’a Hightower (Knee) and Jamie Collins (Illness) were bit by the injury bug, shortly before the biggest shoe dropped on November 29th; in suffering their first defeat of the campaign, a 30-24 overtime loss at Denver, Belichick and Co. watched helplessly as All-Pro Tight End Rob Gronkowski suffered a strained knee ligament that not only forced him out of said matchup, but from participating in last week’s shocking loss at home to the struggling Eagles. At this point, the Patriots have become a victim of attrition; the proverbial boxer who has taken far too many body blows to continue to perform at a level to ward off his opponent. And that is precisely what was on display last weekend against Philadelphia. Rarely do you see a Belichick-coached team beaten in such a manner, as his team’s uncharacteristically sloppy mistakes on Offense and Special Teams ultimately sealed their fate; after jumping out to an apparently commanding lead midway through the second quarter, the visiting side managed to square things away before the half, scoring a pair of touchdowns, including a 24-yard blocked punt return for a touchdown with just eight seconds left before the whistle. Things got worse in the third stanza, as the Eagles scored two more touchdowns on a 99-yard interception return from Malcolm Jenkins, and an 83-yard Darren Sproles punt return, extending the visitor’s lead to a stunning 28-14 entering the final fifteen minutes. After a Jordan Matthews touchdown reception from Sam Bradford pushed the margin to three touchdowns, the hosts mounted a frantic comeback to cut the lead to 35-28 before the game finally ended.
Looking back, one would have to appreciate the rarity in what had happened last Sunday, as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady suffered consecutive losses for just the sixth time since No. 12 became the starter early in the 2001 campaign. In fact, it was the first time it happened sine early in the 2012 season when the Patriots got off to a surprising 1-2 start. However, a dropping a third consecutive game would indeed be a significant, you would have to go all the way back to 2002 when New England dropped four consecutive contests, that they were mired in such a losing streak. As we said before, this team has been a victim of attrition, and it’s only logical that they would finally falter with so many key players on the sidelines. Well, this may just be the weekend in which they start getting them back; Danny Amendola (Knee) and the aforementioned Gronkowski are both expected to be active for tonight’s outing, while Offensive Guard Marcus Cannon is listed as probable after suffering the effects of a sprained toe. Of course, dealing with all those injuries is manageable when you have Brady under Center, who has turned yet another MVP-caliber season; twelve games, and Brady has completed 63.7% of his passes for an average of 326.0 yards (7.7 y/a), while tossing a league-high thirty-six touchdown passes to just six interceptions, all the while posting a Total QBR of 64.48. Over the last two games it’s been a joy to watch him work through adversity; behind an Offensive Line that has been ravaged by injuries, Brady has fought tooth and nail to get the ball out quickly to a group of receivers that even the most vested football fan would have a hard time identifying, completing just 53.1% of his attempts for an average of 296.0 yards (6.0 y/a), connecting on six touchdowns to a pair of interceptions. Typically, the Patriots’ Offense has the look of a beautifully-crafted, well-oiled machine that functions with deadly precision, but with so many missing components leading to inefficiency, it’s a wonder that they’ve still managed to post over 300 yards in each of the last two games. The expected return of both Amendola and Gronkowski should re-establish some normalcy back into this unit, which should be music to Brady’s ears. Amendola can operate both on the boundary and in the slot, which is where he’s likely to operate with Edelman still out, providing Brady with an outlet for all those short to intermediate passes that he’s so proficient at. On the season, the 30-year old Receiver has amassed fifty-six receptions on seventy-three targets, for 582 yards (10.4 y/r) and three touchdowns in seven starts. Gronkowski, on the other hand, is the home run hitter here, which Brady is able to utilize to devastating effect; the towering Tight End is the proverbial matchup nightmare, posing too much speed and athleticism for Linebackers, and far too much size for smaller Safeties and Cornerbacks, reeling in fifty-seven receptions on a team-high ninety-two targets, for 931 yards (16.3 y/r) and nine touchdowns. Interestingly, Gronkowski is the only member of the Patriots’ Receiving Corps to net over 15.0 yards per catch, which is indicative of the vital role he plays in their offense. Essentially, he’s really their only threat in stretching the field, and without him they’re oftentimes sequestered to a 10-12-yard box, which makes them far easier to defend. Gronk’s return should also help the running game out quite a bit, for Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels prefers to use a multiple of Two-Tight End Sets, bolstering the blocking, which will be important against Houston’s aggressive defensive front tonight. With the current state of the Offensive Line, there is a train of thought that McDaniels will have to utilize his Tight Ends heavily in pass protection, not just because of the likes of reigning Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt on the opposite side of the Line of Scrimmage, but because of a pair of familiar faces stalking the Texans’ sidelines…
Meanwhile, it’s certainly been a tale of two seasons for the Texans (6-6 1st in AFC South), for at one point, Bill O’Brien and his charges looked as if they were dead in the water. A prolonged Quarterback Controversy between Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett headlined a dreadful 2-5 start, which had many in the football community believing that sweeping change was on the front in Houston. Oh, but that’s football isn’t it? You lose a few games and everyone wants to burn the organization down to it’s foundation. And why wouldn’t they? The Texans were downright listless in their previous four losses, unable to sustain drives due to a floundering running game, and defense that simply couldn’t get off the field. More so, they developed a habit of falling into huge holes early, which could be interpreted as an indictment on O’Brien and his Staff, and their lack of preparation; in the Opener they trailed Kansas City 27-9 at halftime, while Atlanta hung forty-two unanswered through the first three quarters of their October 4th matchup. In fact, over the first seven games of the campaign, Houston was outscored by a whopping ninety-six points in the first half alone, which equates to a 13.7-point deficit before halftime per outing. Talk about digging yourself a hole… It’s hard to gage when exactly the tide turned for this team, but we’re going to go out on a limb and guess that it happened at some point during their embarrassing 44-26 defeat at Miami back on October 25th. The visitors trailed by a staggering forty-one points at halftime, which had many already fueling reports that O’Brien was headed back to college before the start of the second half. However, something changed during the intermission, for the Texans emerged with a renewed sense of focus; outscoring the Dolphins 26-3 over the final thirty minutes, they began a run that would continue on into tonight’s matchup, vaulting them to the top of the laughably mediocre AFC South in the process. Since that fateful day in South Florida, Houston has since won four out five games, thanks to a revitalized defense and some much-needed stability at Quarterback, where Brian Hoyer has comfortably acclimated himself to the starting job, with Mallett released shortly after the debacle in Miami.
The Texans of the last six weeks resemble the ones from a year ago that surprised many in the football world with a 9-7 finish after a terribly dreadful 2-14 nightmare in 2013. As we touched upon earlier, so many things have changed over this period for this team. With Mallett’s release, Hoyer has taken the reigns, providing a steady hand for a unit that was in dire need of one; the 30-year old journeyman has completed 64.6% of his passes over that span for 214.0 yards (6.7 y/a), with seven touchdowns to just three interceptions in four appearances (he missed the 24-17 victory over the Jets on November 22nd with a concussion). The ground game has also found it’s way, which is significant considering how inept it looked during their 2-5 start. Over that period, the Texans averaged a mere 92.4 yards via the run, with that number inflated due to a 186-yard outburst against the Buccaneers back on September 27th. The season-ending Achilles injury to Pro Bowl Tailback Arian Foster seemingly doomed their fortunes in the running game, which was so important to their success in 2014. Since that fateful loss at Miami, they’ve improved incrementally, averaging a much-more sustainable 110.8 yards per game on the ground, including a stellar 138.7 over the last three weeks alone. O’Brien has utilized a committee approach in the Backfield, with the likes of Alfred Blue (444 yards), Chris Polk (252 yards), and Jonathan Grimes (177 yards) each doing their part in supporting the rushing attack. With that said, the area that has seen the biggest improvement during this run is the defense, which all of sudden has emerged as one of the more imposing in NFL. Though the problems on offense played a role in their struggles, it would be unrealistic to proclaim them void of any responsibility in the team’s poor start; during that 2-5 stretch, the Texans’ defense was anything but solid, allowing 28.4 points on 370.9 total yards, including 128.8 versus the run, and forcing just six turnovers. Since then, they have all but snuffed out the run (93.4 yards per game), while forcing eight turnovers over the course of those five contests, en route to a total of sixty-five total points allowed. To put that in perspective, Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel saw his unit relinquish sixty-four points in the two outings prior to that period, a 31-20 victory over Jacksonville and the aforementioned 44-26 loss at Miami. As you can imagine, any change on this side of the ball likely has something to do with the pay of J.J. Watt, who over the last six weeks is once again making his candidacy for MVP very real. The 6-6, 290 lbs Defensive End has been wrecking opposing offenses over the last six weeks, racking up twenty-four tackles and 7.5 sacks over the last five games, on his way to a league-high 13.5 Quarterback Takedowns. Simply put, this guy has been the definition of special posting an astounding sixty-five sacks since his sophomore season of 2012, along with thirty-eight deflected passes and thirteen forced fumbles. The two-time Defensive Player of the year will likely receive a wealth of attention tonight, as New England will no doubt utilize their Tight Ends in pass protection in an effort to keep No. 99 away from Brady. Look for the attention he draws to open up opportunities for his fellow teammates such as Linebackers Whitney Mercilus (6.5 sacks) and Joh Simon (3.5 sacks), as well as longtime Patriots’ Nose Tackle Vince Wilfork.