HOUSTON TEXANS (9-7)
at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (14-2)
Gillette Stadium – Foxborough, MA
Kickoff: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
Line: New England -16, Total: 44.5
New England is an overwhelming favorite at home against the incoming Texans on Saturday.
As the Houston Texans stumbled their way to an AFC South title on the strength of a 9-7 regular season record (6-9-1 ATS), including a 2-6 mark on the road, the question was not so much whether they would lose their first playoff game, but rather to whom they would lose. Incredibly, Houston’s scheduling luck continued in the Wild Card round, as they beat a Raiders team that played with a rookie third-string quarterback, 27-14 (HOU -4). The Texans defense made sure Connor Cook and company couldn’t get anything going, limiting the rookie to 18-of-45 passing and picking him off three times. They held the Raiders to 203 yards of total offense on the day. As a reward, Houston gets to travel to Gillette Stadium and try to exact revenge on a Patriots team that beat them 27-0 in that very same stadium in Week 3. One difference, however, will be the quarterback they’re facing, as they won’t get third-stringer Jacoby Brissett again and will instead have to take on Tom Brady, the best to ever play the position. Favored by 16 points as of Monday afternoon, the Patriots became the biggest favorites in an NFL playoff game since 1998. They finished the regular season on a seven-game win streak to lock up the No. 1 seed in the AFC at 14-2, with a league-best record of 13-3 against the spread. Over the last 10 seasons, favorites averaging at least 27 points per game that have held opponents to 14 points or fewer in two consecutive games (NE) are 9-33 ATS. Over the last five seasons, games in which one team is attempting to revenge a road loss of 21 points or more (HOU) are 34-11 Under against the total. Houston S Quintin Demps is questionable for Saturday’s game, as are CB Cyrus Jones and WR Malcolm Mitchell for the Patriots. New England WR Danny Amendola is probable.
After leading his team to a win against the Raiders, some overly-excited online commentators proposed the idea that Texans QB Brock Osweiler (59.0 CMP%, 2,957 yards, 15 TDs, 16 INTs) had finally lived up to the contract that he signed in the offseason. That is, well, entirely untrue. While complete mediocrity is a step up for Osweiler—he completed 14 of 25 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown—he by no means has played to the standards of a deal that amounts to an average of $18 million a year, not far below Brady’s $20.5 million contract. The Texans probably would prefer that he were not their starting quarterback right now, as head coach Bill O’Brien pulled him from the game against Jacksonville in Week 14 in favor of backup Tom Savage (63.0 CMP%, 461 yards). Savage proceeded to play well and lead the team to a comeback victory and another win a week later. His season likely ended, however, when he suffered a concussion in Week 17, and Osweiler again became the starter. Osweiler’s season-long struggles have had devastating effects on the numbers of once-star WR DeAndre Hopkins (78 catches, 954 yards, 4 TDs). He has been better towards the end of the season, though: he had 253 receiving yards in the final three weeks of the regular season, and had only his second touchdown since early October in the playoff game against Oakland last week. Rookie WR Will Fuller (47 catches, 635 yards, 2 TDs) started off his career with back-to-back 100-yard games, but has only topped 80 yards in a game once since then. TEs C.J. Fiedorowicz (54 catches, 559 yards, 4 TDs) and Ryan Griffin (50 catches, 442 yards, 2 TDs) are the team’s third- and fourth-leading receivers, respectively. Due to the general ineffectiveness of Osweiler and the passing game, Houston figures to lean heavily on RB Lamar Miller (268 carries, 1,073 yards, 5 TDs) against the Patriots. After sitting out two games with an ankle injury, Miller returned against Oakland to pound the ball 31 times for 73 yards and a touchdown. The Raiders loaded the box to limit him to 2.4 yards per carry, and New England may try to do the same. On defense, the Texans rank first in the entire league in allowing only 301.3 yards per game, and 11th with 20.5 points allowed per game. DE Jadeveon Clowney broke out in the Wild Card game with a brilliant interception and consistently disruptive play at the line of scrimmage. CB A.J. Bouye has been one of the NFL’s best at his position this season.
It tells you everything you need to know about Brady (67.4 CMP%, 3,554 yards, 28 TDs, 2 INTs) that he is an MVP candidate despite having missed four games this season. He finished the regular season second in the league in yards per attempt (8.23), fifth in completion percentage and second in passer rating (112.2). While it might be attempting to attribute his low interception rate to his missed time, throwing two interceptions on 432 attempts in 12 games demonstrates wildly impressive accuracy: Brady’s interception rate of 0.46% is the lowest of his career, and it is second best in the NFL among quarterbacks who have thrown at least 100 passes. (Bears backup Brian Hoyer attempted 200 passes and did not throw a single pick.) In his career, Brady has completed 63.8% of his passes for 7.5 yards per attempt, a touchdown rate of 5.5% and a 97.2 passer rating. In 31 career playoff games, he has completed 62.4% of his passes for 6.7 yards per attempt, a touchdown rate of 4.7% and a passer rating of 88.0. Considering that playoff games are generally played against tougher competition in colder weather, Brady is essentially the same quarterback in the postseason as he is in the regular season, which is to say one of the greatest passers of all time, if not the single greatest. He’ll certainly be better off if Mitchell (32 catches, 401 yards, 4 TDs) and Amendola (23 catches, 243 yards, 4 TDs) are in the lineup, as the Patriots are already without future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski at tight end. Mitchell scored all of his touchdowns in the final six games of the regular season. WR Julian Edelman (98 catches, 1,106 yards, 3 TDs) has had some of his biggest moments in the playoffs and TE Martellus Bennett (55 catches, 701 yards, 7 TDs) will be motivated in only his second playoff appearance of his nine-year career. WRs Chris Hogan (38 catches, 680 yards, 4 TDs) and newly-acquired Michael Floyd (4 catches, 42 yards, TD with New England) can make big plays, too. As evidenced by his usage of players like Kevin Faulk and Shane Vereen in years past, Brady especially likes to use running backs in the passing game in the postseason. That’s where RBs James White (60 catches, 551 yards, 5 TDs) and Dion Lewis (17 catches, 94 yards in limited action) come in. As far as the actual running game, RB LeGarrette Blount (299 carries, 1,161 yards, 18 TDs) could be in for a very big day or a very quiet one. Patriots game plans are notoriously unpredictable in the playoffs, and Bill Belichick is just as likely to pound the ball often as he is to have Brady throw the ball 45 times. Blount does have a history of exploding in the postseason, though: He put up 166 yards and four touchdowns in a divisional round win over the Colts two years ago. The Patriots had the best scoring defense in the NFL, allowing 15.6 points per game. They allowed 326.4 yards per game, a number that’s eighth-best in the league. LB Dont’a Hightower and S Devin McCourty were both Pro Bowl selections this season.