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Patriots Preview - Monday Night Showdown at Gillette

Friday, December 07, 2012


This is the stretch Patriots fans have been waiting for.

Through 13 weeks, 12 games played, touchdowns scored and given up…through injuries and other means of player attrition, this week begins the real deal. 9-3 New England meets the 11-1 Houston Texans, on Monday Night Football at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro.

Not that any of the previous games or teams played against don’t matter – because they certainly do. But when arguably the top team in the NFL comes to your place, on a Monday night, no less – the football world will be paying attention. Add to this mix of excitement and anticipation the fact that the regular season is winding down, and the Pats have already clinched the AFC East Division title…the winner of the New England-Houston game is in prime position to grab a bye in the AFC playoffs…and perhaps the winner assumes command as a Super Bowl favorite.

It’s a lot to grasp. And it’ll be up to the Patriots to grasp the right stuff, in order to win what may be their toughest game of the season-to-date.

Houston is solid on both sides of the ball. Offensively, RB Arian Foster doesn’t do one thing particularly well - he does a lot of things well. He’s run for more yards (3942) and scored more touchdowns (39) than any other player in the league since 2010. QB Matt Schaub – nearing his 3rd 4000-yard passing season in the past four years – uses Foster and the running game to set up a passing game that has one of the best receivers in Andre Johnson, and a top tight end in Owen Daniels.

Defensively, the Texans’ front is as dynamic as you’ll find. The team ranks 2nd in the NFL in fewest rushing yards allowed, 4th in fewest points allowed…and they lead the league in 3rd down defense. They also like to blitz, with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips calling the shots. Defensive lineman J.J. Watt has been an irresistible force, lining up in multiple positions and wreaking havoc to the tune of 15.5 sacks, 32 quarterback hits and 15 passes defended.

He’s been busy. He’s also had plenty of help, however.

Both teams have had injuries to key personnel that may keep them from being in top shape, but that’s simply a fact of life in the NFL. How teams overcome their deficiencies tells you what kind of team they have…and Houston has one of the best, no doubt. It adds to the intrigue, and to the excitement in anticipating what could be a memorable game.

One Patriots fans have been waiting for.

Spread ‘Em Out

With the Texans’ ability to use their aggressiveness on defense, it stands to reason the Patriots would be best-served to work in no-huddle, up-tempo offensive sets to limit Houston’s sub packages. Find a match-up you like, and attack it…without giving them the chance to adjust. The Texans aren’t fancy, they don’t show a lot of looks – they generally come right after you. If the Patriots can create space in which to work, they can have success.

Protect the Pocket

It goes without saying, really, that the key to success will revolve around a make-shift New England offensive line, and the ability to keep Tom Brady upright most of the game. Houston leads the league in blitzing, running in extra defenders at opposing quarterbacks almost 44% of the time. While they may not go in that frequently against the Pats’ ability to drop the ball off to many different options, Watt, Connor Barwin and Shaun Cody will make life tough enough.

Know What’s Coming

Sounds easy, right? But the Patriots’ basic game plan has been to shut down the opponents’ running game, and that should be a priority this week against a team that runs as well as anyone. Foster and Ben Tate provide adequate speed and power, and a certain degree of “missability,” with a knack for making defenders miss tackles. If you slow or shut down the run game, you force the Texans to throw…which may or may not be a good thing, but at the least NE defenders will know what’s coming at them. The Patriots defense has held their past two opponents to a middling 6-for-23 in converting 3rd downs. Stop the run, they’ll have a chance to continue this trend.

Projection: Patriots 23, Texans 20


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