FOXBORO -- This is how it's gone for you the last eight Wild Card weekends, correct?
No game for the Patriots, but you'll do anything but take the weekend off from football. Instead, you'll be heavily invested in the outcomes of other AFC playoff games, transferring your rooting energy to whichever teams can help yours the most.
No weeks off, even when your team gets one. It's your cross to bear.
But with three very different — and uniquely talented — teams lined up as potential Patriots opponents for the Divisional Round, for whom should you be rooting to arrive at Gillette Stadium next Sunday for a 1 p.m. kickoff?
Time to dust off those letterman jackets, friends. Here's why you want the Texans rolling into town...
THEIR OFFENSIVE LINE... STILL BAD
When the Patriots racked up a fistful of quarterback pressures back in Week 1, it came with a caveat: The Texans offensive line might be the worst they face all year. Turns out that it was. In fact, it’s arguably one of the worst of the last decade. They allowed 62 sacks, which is the most felt by any quarterback since John Kitna was hammered even more regularly in 2006. Houston also has the lowest-graded run-blocking unit in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Yes, the Texans have an extremely talented quarterback in Deshaun Watson and a gifted receiver in DeAndre Hopkins. But it’s a relatively one-dimensional team. And for the Patriots — who led the league in third-down pressure percentage, according to ESPN — that could mean another productive day for their pass-rush.
THEIR WEAPONS... DOWN TO ONE GREAT ONE
Hopkins is truly gifted, but in a way that’s different from most top-tier pass-catchers in today’s NFL. He’s not as fast as Tyreek Hill or as strong as Julio Jones or Michael Thomas. But Hopkins’ size, hands and body control have made him one of the more unstoppable boundary options in football. For a while there, he was made an even tougher cover because the Texans added a true No. 2 in Demaryius Thomas at the trade deadline. But now that Thomas is out injured, the Patriots would have their choice in terms of matchup options on Hopkins. Want to double him? Go ahead. Want to match him with Pro Bowler (and potential All-Pro) Stephon Gilmore? Have at it. So long as the Patriots can prevent extended plays by keeping Watson in the pocket — something they did successfully for a half against Patrick Mahomes and for a full game against Aaron Rodgers — they could handle the Texans matchup well enough.
THEIR SECONDARY... NOT WHAT IT COULD BE
There’s no getting around it: The Texans defensive front is strong. J.J. Watt is healthy enough to have re-established himself as one of the best defensive linemen in the league. Whitney Mercilus is healthy and available. Jadeveon Clowney may have played well enough to earn himself the franchise tag in 2019. And as a run defense, they’re stout. They’re allowing a league-best 3.4 yards per carry. But Houston’s secondary is decidedly “meh.” Even with that front generating pressure, the Texans are 20th in the league in terms of yards per attempt allowed (7.5), and they’re 18th in rating (92.7) and touchdowns allowed (28). Compared to the other secondaries the Patriots could face — the Ravens and Chargers are both ranked in the top-10 in yards per pass attempt allowed — the Texans aren’t a terrible matchup.
THEIR SCHEME... FAMILIAR
Aside from their deficiencies offensively and defensively, the Texans aren’t a bad team for the Patriots to see in January because they’re a familiar opponent. The Patriots will prepare and over-prepare regardless of their Divisional Round matchup, but that preparation process would be made easier if the Texans were to win their Wild Card matchup. They’ve seen them once before this year already — though it was when Watson was playing his first game post-ACL surgery and with a defense that was far from where it would end up. The Patriots have seen the Texans several times over the last few years between the regular season, playoffs and joint training camp practices. No surprises there. Not the case with New England’s other two potential Divisional Round opponents, the Ravens and Chargers. Baltimore would trot out an offense centered around a running quarterback that looks more like something Bill Belichick’s dad would’ve seen at Navy than it does a modern pro attack. Los Angeles has an experienced quarterback who’s run hot for the majority of the season and has a variety of weapons at receiver, running back and tight end (if Hunter Henry is back and healthy enough to make an impact). Plus, the best outcome for the Patriots seems like it would be for the Chargers and Texans to win, sending the Chargers back to Kansas City for the Divisional Round. Should they win at Arrowhead for the second time this year, and if the Patriots were to beat the Texans, the AFC title game would take place at Gillette for the third consecutive year.
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