Oct 172013
 

peyton-manning-getty

We’ve changed our model a little bit, because we wanted more than one [Super Bowl ring].

So, Jim Irsay decided to diss the man who built his fancy new stadium in Indianapolis. That’s fine. It’s his prerogative to be a complete moron — and to flash that idiocy for the world to see.

Brady never had consistent numbers, but he has three.

I’m not about to get into the “who is the best QB of this generation” argument. Not now, anyway. But if there’s one thing that pisses me off in football analysis more than anything else, it’s the equation of championships with individual greatness. If Super Bowl rings made quarterbacks great, then Trent Dilfer would be a better QB than Dan Marino, Mark Rypien would be superior to Warren Moon, and Jeff Hostetler would rank above Fran Tarkenton.

You make the playoffs 11 times, and you’re out in the first round seven out of 11 times.

Well, gosh, Jim. I suppose there’s no other reason that happened other than Peyton Manning not being the Bestest Quarterback He Could Be. It couldn’t be the team (and its owner) emphasized “Star Wars” offensive numbers and failed to recognize that, even in this pass-happy environment, you need a defense to win championships, could it?

Here’s a quick look at those eleven Colts playoff teams:

Year Record PF PA Pyth% Result SB Pyth%
1999 13-3 423 333 63.8 Lost Divisional 86.3
2000 10-6 429 326 65.7 Lost Wild Card 84.0
2002 10-6 349 313 56.4 Lost Wild Card 79.4
2003 12-4 447 336 66.3 Lost Conference 71.1
2004 12-4 522 351 71.9 Lost Divisional 77.4
2005 14-2 439 247 79.6 Lost Divisional 72.6
2006 12-4 427 360 60.0 Won Super Bowl 60.0
2007 13-3 450 262 78.3 Lost Divisional 53.6
2008 12-4 377 298 63.6 Lost Wild Card 74.0
2009 14-2 416 307 67.3 Lost Super Bowl 72.2
2010 10-6 435 388 56.7 Lost Wild Card 75.7

 

Notice anything? I’ll give you a hint: those Indianapolis teams weren’t “great”. They averaged a Pythagorean Expectation (PE) of 66.3% — somewhere between 10-6 and 11-5. Better than most, but not consistently championship-worthy. Don’t believe me? Look at that last column, showing the PE of the eventual NFL Champion. Only twice did the Colts’ PE exceed that of the Super Bowl winner: in 2005, when the Colts had a slight 7% edge on Pittsburgh, and in 2007, when New York stunnned the Patriots (whose PE was a whopping 85.6%).

Looking more closely, we can see why the Colts weren’t as good as the Super Bowl winners. In the ten seasons they failed to win it all, the Colts scored an average of 429 points (7% more than the champions), while giving up an average of 316 points (26% more than the champions). The Colts outscored the champions in 8 out of those 10 years, but gave up more points than the champions in 7 of those 10 years (again, that includes 2007, when the Giants won the Super Bowl despite giving up 351 points).

In other words, those Manning-led offenses were more than good enough to compete for multiple Super Bowl rings — it was the defenses that weren’t up to the task. To overcome the defensive deficiency and achieve the same PE as the Super Bowl champions, the Colts would have needed to score an average of 76 more points per season.

And yet, those eleven Colts teams outperformed their PE by an average of 8.7%, or about 1.4 more wins per year. Their best years in this respect? 1999, when they won 2.8 games more than expected (losing in the divisional round to the eventual AFC Champion Titans); 2006, when they won 2.4 games more than expected (going on to win the Super Bowl); and 2009, when they won 3.2 games more than expected (losing to the Saints in the Super Bowl — whose PE was 5 points higher). Only once did the Colts underperform compared to their PE (in 2000, winning 10 games instead of the predicted 10.5).

So, in short, we’ve got a team, consistently playing above its potential, making the playoffs in 11 of 12 seasons, finishing with a record of 9-10. Again, not “great”, but co

Frankly, there’s only one year in which the Colts clearly choked in the playoffs. In 2007, they won 13 games, right in line with their PE of 78.3%. They had a first-round bye, and for once their defense was superb, giving up 16 points/game (first in the NFL).

But who choked, exactly?

Was it the offense, which put up 24 points against the fifth-ranked defense in the league?

Or was it the defense, which allowed almost twice as many points as its per-game average?

There’s no question you need a great quarterback to consistently succeed in today’s NFL. But don’t be an idiot like Jim Irsay — if you want to know why the Colts “only” have one Super Bowl ring, you need to look at the whole team, not just one position.

And whose responsibility is it to build the whole team?

Hmm…

Jun 132013
 

Mike Munchak and Jake Locker10. Tennessee Titans
Head Coach: Mike Munchak
2012 Record: 6-10
2012 Offense: 330 points scored, 23rd in points, 26th in yards (22nd passing, 21st rushing)
2012 Defense: 471 points allowed, 32nd in points, 27th in yards (26th passing, 24th rushing)

Key Additions
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB Shonn Greene, G Andy Levitre, TE Delanie Walker, WR Kevin Walter, WR Roberto Wallace, LB Moise Fokou, S Bernard Pollard, G Chance Warmack, WR Justin Hunter, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson

Key Losses
RB Javon Ringer, TE Jared Cook, QB Matt Hasselbeck, G Steve Hutchinson, DL Sen’Derrick Marks, DL Dave Ball, LB Will Witherspoon, LB Zac Diles, DB Ryan Mouton, S Jordan Babineaux

Why 2013 will be better
Chris Johnson remains one of the best backs in the league, and adding Shonn Greene makes the Titan’s running game even more dangerous. Adding Levitre and Warmack immediately improves the offensive line and will give both Johnson and Greene better running lanes. Jake Locker had a so-so first year as a starter, but could be poised for a breakout year if he and new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains get their heads together on the Titans’ variation of a read option offense. Locker is athletic and mobile, but injuries are a legitimate concern. His backup, Ryan Fitzpatrick, was a short-lived wonder in Buffalo who dried up as soon as he got paid. Will getting cut and becoming a backup fuel him if Locker should go down? Titans’ fans are hoping they won’t have to find out. On defense, the linebacker corps features Zach Brown and Akeem Ayers, two young players with complementary skill sets who promise to disrupt opposing offenses. Fouku joins the group inside along with Colin McCarthy, and as a group the Titans are capable of defending both the pass and the run with better proficiency than they did last season.

Why 2013 will be worse
Kenny Britt is the anchor of the Titans’ receiving corps, which is problematic for Tennessee given Britt’s proclivity for off-field mischief and his failure to put together a full season in four years as a pro. Nate Washington is a reliable target, but the team may be forced to find out early whether or not Justin Hunter was worth trading up for. Kendall Wright had a strong rookie campaign, and Delanie Walker is a serviceable receiving tight end, but the Titans’ receivers don’t give the appearance of a group that will scare teams. Still, the group doesn’t have to dominate to help the Titans win games; they simply need to complement what promises to be a run heavy offense. They have potential, but it is a generally unproven group. If the Titans are going to have a more successful 2013, it will be because there is significant improvement in the defense, and this will have to begin up front, where Derrick Martin and Kamerion Wimbley return as reliable defensive line bookends. The biggest improvement here is the addition of Sammie Lee Hill to Jurrell Casey and Mike Martin inside, but I’m not sure it’s enough; the Titans have depth on the line, but lack big playmakers. The secondary is also problematic, where Jason McCourty landed a big contract despite not being a solid #1 corner. He is good in zone but struggles in man coverage. The next two nickel spots are an open competition, but the Titans will continue to be susceptible to passing attacks like the ones they will face from Indianapolis, Houston, San Francisco, and Denver. At safety, Tennessee landed the physical Pollard, but Michael Griffin has decent range, but was mistake prone in 2012. He has to rebound in order to help the Titans avoid being a porous pass defense. The kicking game may also be an issue if Rob Bironas continues the decline he experienced in 2012.

Outlook
The Titans look to be improved from 2012, but only marginally. The biggest improvement seems to be in the offensive line, which should aid the Titans in pounding the ball, and keeping the defense off the field after a season in which the Titans gave up the most points in the league. Given that the Titans play the Jaguars twice and get to play the AFC West, it’s conceivable that the Titans will break even at 8-8 this season… somewhere between five and eight wins appears to be their range. But the team is still a year or two away from being a legitimate contender.

Jun 102013
 

Gus Bradley2. Jacksonville Jaguars
Head Coach: Gus Bradley
2012 Record: 2-14
2012 Offense: 255 points scored, 30th in points, 29th in yards (21st passing, 30th rushing)
2012 Defense: 444 points allowed, 29th in points, 30th in yards (22nd passing, 30th rushing)

Key Additions
Head Coach Gus Bradley, LB Geno Hayes, DT Roy Miller, RB Justin Forsett, DB Alan Ball, DT Sen’Derrick Marks, WR Mohammed Massaquoi, CB Marcus Trufant, DT Brandon Deaderick, DT Kyle Love, T Luke Joeckel, S Johnathan Cyprien (6/13: QB Mike Kafka)

Key Losses
DT CJ Mosley, T Guy Whimper, S Dawan Landry, CB Aaron Ross, T Eben Britton, DB Derek Cox, LB Daryl Smith, RB Rashad Jennings, FB Greg Jones, DT Terrance Knighton, DB Rashean Mathis, DB William Middleton, WR Laurent Robinson, RB Montell Owens

Why 2013 will be better
After winning only two games last season, it probably can’t get worse. Bradley has brought in new defensive parts to replace a slew of departing players, but none of these is a proven blue-chipper and several have previously under-achieved. Still, Miller promises to help stuff the run, while Ball and Trufant should provide leadership to the five defensive backs that the Jaguars scooped up by the Jaguars in the draft. Blaine Gabbert’s job is hanging by a thread, so he has plenty of motivation to improve on his 77.4 passer rating (1,662 yards, 9 TD, 6 INT), while the consistently pedestrian Chad Henne waits in the wings. While the Jags have not brought in a quarterback to compete with Gabbert, it is entirely possible that Jacksonville will start the year with Henne at the helm. Maurice Jones-Drew returns from a lost 2012 campaign (once again proving that players who hold out more often than not get hurt or fail to perform), yet still led the team in rushing in only six appearances. However, it is an open question as to how effective he will be this coming season, and he is currently mired in controversy over his role in an off-field incident. This makes the signing of Forsett an important safety net for the club. Any improvements on offense will be a boon for the defense, which was last in the league in quarterback sacks last season. Assuming any offensive improvement at all in 2013, the Jaguars should be capable of winning four to five games this season, a marked improvement over 2012 that still nets the team a top five draft pick next spring.

Why 2013 will be worse
Gabbert will fail to improve while Hennne won’t be much better. MJD won’t return to form, and the defensive patchwork won’t be an improvement over last season. The Jags win two games again and secure the top pick in the draft. Hmmm… maybe that isn’t worse.

Outlook
Despite the lack of good quarterback play, the Jaguars couldn’t run the ball in 2012, nor could they stop the run. While Gus Bradley is a tremendous defensive coach who helped turn around the Seattle Seahawks, it’s going to take a lot more than his brain power to turn around this woeful franchise. The addition of Joeckel secures the left tackle position for the foreseeable future, but the team lacks playmakers after Jones-Drew. Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts both showed promise last season, but the team needs to see both players surpass their production from last season. This will be hard for Blackmon to do since he will miss the first four games due to a suspension. Hopes for anything beyond a four win season should be regarded as wildly optimistic.

UPDATE (6/13): The Jags have claimed QB Mike Kafka, who was released by the Patriots earlier this week. Kafka adds an interesting wrinkle at quarterback, but doesn’t change the overall fate of the team for 2013.

Jan 102013
 

carousel_1New Jaguars GM David Caldwell made his first major change to the team, firing Head Coach Mike Mularkey after just one season at the helm, during which the Jaguars went 2-14. Caldwell previously worked with Mularkey in Atlanta, but seems to have wanted a fresh start with his own head coach.

Here’s a summary of where teams are after the immediate firings following the end of the regular season.

Arizona Cardinals
New General Manager: Steve Keim
Head Coach: Vacant

Buffalo Bills
New Head Coach: Doug Marrone

Carolina Panthers
New General Manager: Dave Gettleman

Chicago Bears
Head Coach: Vacant

Cleveland Browns
General Manager: Vacant
Head Coach: Vacant

Jacksonville Jaguars
New General Manager: Dave Caldwell
Head Coach: Vacant

Kansas City Chiefs
General Manager: Vacant
New Head Coach: Andy Reid

New York Jets
General Manager: Vacant

Philadelphia Eagles
Head Coach: Vacant

San Diego Chargers
New General Manager: Tom Telesco
Head Coach: Vacant

We will keep updating this post as new hires are announced.

Jan 072013
 

Patriots - Texans 1In 2010, the New England Patriots routed the New York Jets 45-3 in their Week 13 match-up. Just six weeks later the Jets walked out of Foxboro as 28-21 winners in the divisional round of the 2010 season in the infamous “Wes Welker foot in the mouth” game. Such a cautionary tale is served up for anyone who thinks that a repeat of the Patriots’ 42-14 blowout win over the Texans in Week 14 is a sure thing.

For the Texans’ part, this Sunday’s match-up in New England offers Houston an opportunity for redemption. The team was outplayed in every aspect of the game in Week 14, as Tom Brady threw four touchdown passes and the Patriots had a 21-0 lead before the Texans knew what hit them. The Texans had already been struggling, needing overtime to beat both Jacksonville and Detroit, but the loss to the Patriots sent them team into a full blown tailspin. The Texans dropped two of their last three games after the rout, falling from the first to the third overall playoff seed, and forcing them to beat the Bengals on Saturday in order to earn their chance at redemption.

The Texans’ performance against the Bengals was less than convincing, and Matt Schaub’s expression was one of relief rather than confidence as the Texans left the field with a 19-13 win over Cincinnati. While Schaub had a pedestrian day, going 29/38 for 262 yards and one interception (pick six), it was Arian Foster’s 140 yards and a stifling Texan’s defense that got the team to move forward in the playoffs. Moreover, it was poor play on the part of the Bengals’ offense that failed to adequately test a suspect Texans’ secondary that aided the Houston defense. That won’t be a problem this coming Sunday.

The Patriots are a team on a mission. They are 9-1 in their last ten games, the sole blemish coming when the Patriots’ barnstorming comeback fell just short against the San Francisco 49ers. Their offense is just as capable as ever, but it is the improving defense that has Patriots’ fans dreaming of a fourth Lombardi trophy. The Texans saw the newly improved secondary five weeks ago in the form of Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard starting at the corners with Devin McCourty moving to safety, as the Patriots limited Schaub to a 19/32/232/1 interception performance, and limited Andre Johnson to eight catches for 95 yards. The Patriots’ run defense held Arian Foster to 46 yards on 15 carries, so both Foster and Schaub have plenty of motivation to play better this time around.

The Patriots will be on guard for a potential letdown as the coaches break out the racquetball rackets again in anticipation of JJ Watt. And the sound bytes to the media already tell you what the Patriots are going to be inundated with all week. “I think there’s certainly a lesson there about how the game that we play now doesn’t have much to do with the game we played before,” Head Coach Bill Belichick said. “It’s another example of that. … That is and always will be the case, there is little relevance to the previous game.” Tom Brady offered the same assessment. “I don’t think that game is going to have any bearing on what happens next week,” Brady said. “That was a big win for our season, it was a big win at that time, but this game is going to be entirely different and I think we need to put just as much preparation into the game as we did before … We know these guys. I think that’s the part that I enjoy, that I’ve already spent a lot of time preparing for them, so to have another week to do it, you feel like you’re going to know them that much better, so we still have to go out and execute against it. I know they felt like they didn’t play their best game against us, which they didn’t, and in a lot of ways, I think we can play better too and we need to play better, it needs to be our best week.”

Here’s how the contest breaks down:

When the Patriots run
In their first meeting the Patriots ran for 130 yards, with Stevan Ridley gaining 72 on 18 carries. The Patriots bring their full complement of running backs into this contest, with Ridley the main back and Danny Woodhead playing the role of scatback. Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden offer a change of pace, with Vereen’s speed serving as a threat particularly in the screen game. The Patriots found their success running behind the guards in the first meeting, particularly pounding the ball behind Logan Mankins in the second half. The Texans boast the second best run defense in the league, yielding only 80 yards per game, but the Patriots’ short passing game opened up the Texans defense, particularly after the Patriots had established the lead. Bradie James and Barrett Ruud must limit Patriots’ runners to under four yards per carry, as the Patriots ripped off thirteen runs of four or more yards between the tackles in December. Look for the Patriots to offer a balanced dose of Ridley, Vereen, and Woodhead to rush for around 120 yards as the run game serves to keep the Texans honest.

Patriots - Texans 2When the Patriots pass
In the first meeting between the two clubs Tom Brady went 19/32 for 232 yards and four touchdowns, and that was without Rob Gronkowski on the field for the Pats. Brandon Lloyd had an outstanding night, catching seven passes for 89 yards and a score, while Aaron Hernandez caught eight balls for 58 yards and two scores. Deion Branch replaces Donte Stallworth from the first meeting, while Wes Welker drew lots of attention from the Texans’ secondary and had a quiet night with only three catches. The Texans struggled in coverage all night long, and penalties aided three Patriots’ drives. This has to be a huge area of concern for the Texans, as the combination of Lloyd, Welker, Gronk, and Hernandez means that every play will carry some form of mismatch; it is simply up to the Patriots’ offensive line to give Brady the time to exploit it. The Patriots’ line did a fantastic job in the first game, holding the Texans to one sack, limiting pressure by the Texans’ pass rushers, and Ryan Wendell essentially removed JJ Watt as a factor from the game. Expect the Texans to make some adjustments to try and free up Watt, but the quick strike passing offense of the Patriots is not likely to be derailed this weekend. Expect Brady to throw for more than 250 yards as he takes advantage of a very suspect Texan’s secondary. Danieal Manning in particular had a rough outing against the Patriots last month and I expect the Patriots to go after Manning early and often on Sunday.

When the Texans run
The Texans bring in the fourth best rushing offense and one of the game’s most prolific running backs in Arian Foster. In the first meeting, Foster was held to 46 yards on 15 carries with one touchdown, and 15 of those yards came on one play. The Texans as a team were limited to 100 yards rushing, as Ben Tate also carried for 46 yards against the Patriots. The Texans’ performance was right on par for the ninth rated rushing defense, which yields only 101.9 yards per game, but it was also with the Patriots staked out to a huge early lead, essentially factoring out the Texans’ running game. The Texans will get their yards on the ground this week, but the Patriots’ solid run stuffers (Vince Wilfork, Brandon Deaderick, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes) should be able to keep big gains relatively in check. Foster was able to run for 140 yards against the Bengals by the Texan’s front line controlling the interior and staying away from Geno Atkins, but the Patriots have a better interior defense than the Bengals do. On the outside, the Patriots are effective at setting and holding the edge, courtesy of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. Foster and Tate will find their running lanes far more crowded than in their win over Cincinnati.

Patriots - Texans 3When the Texans pass
Matt Schaub has good numbers this season (4,008 yards, 22 TD, 12 INT) but seems to wilt under the spotlight in big games. Will this game serve as the moment where Matt Schaub stepped up, or will he begin to be labeled as a choke artist? Schaub is obviously most comfortable throwing to Andre Johnson, who had an outstanding season in 2012, and the Patriots will once again need to limit his production. Assuming everyone is healthy, look for the Patriots to leave Talib in single coverage on Johnson, occasionally offering safety protection over the top. More often than not however, the Patriots will need to bring a safety up for run defense, putting the pressure on Talib. Tight End Owen Daniels had 62 catches this season and is Schaub’s next favorite target, and the combination of Daniels and Garrett Graham (who missed the first meeting) could give the Patriots’ linebackers fits, as they occasionally struggled in coverage in the first contest without Graham playing. Kevin Walter is a dependable target, and Foster is a receiving threat coming out of the backfield. There is no doubt that the Texans have the tools to have a big game in the air, but they need Schaub to be a good decision-maker and to execute his throws. His interception by McCourty in the first game is demonstrative of the type of lapses that seem to hold Schaub from rising to an elite level of quarterback play. The Texans did a good job of protecting Schaub in the first game, despite the Patriots’ pouring on the blitzes. Schaub is likely to throw for over 250 yards in this game, but the key statistic is going to be his touchdown to interception ratio. Further, if the Patriots successfully limit the Texans’ rushing game, that will take away the play action pass as a significant threat. Without the play action, Schaub is simply not a great quarterback. The Patriots know this and took away Daniels in their first meeting, something the Texans need to correct.

Special Teams
Keshawn Martin is a dangerous return man for the Texans. Shayne Graham is a good, but not spectacular kicker, while Donnie Jones is one of the best punters in the league. On the Patriots’ side, Stephen Gostkowski is generally a reliable kicker, while Zoltan Mesko has had an inconsistent season. McCourty has been up and down as a kick returner, while Welker is always capable of breaking a big return in the punting game.

Intangibles
The Texans keep talking about contests as being the “biggest in franchise history.” My unsolicited advice to the Texans is to talk about any biggest games after they have won a Super Bowl, and not before. Such talk merely reiterates what the Texans have yet to accomplish, and serves as a reminder that in the “big game” department the Patriots have been there and done that. Mental edge to the Patriots.

Both teams are healthier this time around, and the Patriots have had an extra week of rest to get everyone prepared. Jermaine Cunningham is back and will aid in applying pressure to Schaub as well as stopping the running game.

In the turnover game, the Patriots and Texans were the best in the AFC, but the Patriots were the best in the league, coming in with 41 takeaways and only 16 giveaways (+25) while the Texans forced 29 turnovers while giving up 17 of their own (+12). This favors the Patriots, but both teams are good at protecting the ball.

Another intangible to keep in mind is that everything went right for the Patriots the first time around. Even when JJ Watt stripped the ball from Danny Woodhead, it was recovered for a touchdown by Brandon Lloyd. When the Patriots fumbled the ball early, Aaron Hernandez was able to rescue it and then score on the next play. Every break went the Patriots’ way, and the result was a blowout win. The Texans did not play with intensity in the first meeting, and know they must play a much better game to compete with the Patriots. Expect the Texans to show up on Sunday.

The Texans win if… Matt Schaub doesn’t make key mistakes, Arian Foster and Ben Tate are able to run for over 150 yards, Andre Johnson is able to exploit single coverage, JJ Watt is able to be a factor in the game, and the Texans’ secondary limits the Patriots’ passing attack.

The Patriots win if… The offensive line protects Tom Brady and keeps Watt from disrupting the passing lanes, the secondary is able to limit the production of Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels, the Patriots protect the ball, and the Patriots show up with the intensity to play four good quarters.

Prediction
This game is not likely to be a blowout, but rather a hard fought affair that won’t be decided until the fourth quarter. While the Texans have seventh best defense in the NFL, it is not a defense that matches up well against the Patriots massive amount of weaponry. As long as Tom Brady has time to make reads, he will complete passes; the Texans’ secondary is simply not as talented as the Patriots’ receiving corps and the Patriots’ top ranked offense. On the other side, the Texans have an explosive offense as well (7th in the NFL) but will be hard pressed to win a shoot-out in New England. The Texans will stick with the Patriots well into the second half before the Pats are able to create a big play and provide some separation. The Patriots ability to pound the ball late in games is a huge asset that will serve them well in this game. Schaub played scared against the Patriots in Week 14, and I don’t expect him to improve this quickly. The Texans, unlike the Patriots, use a similar offensive game plan for every opponent, and this is something that can aid the Patriots in forcing Schaub to make mistakes.

Patriots 34 Texans 24

Jan 052013
 

Bengals-TexansCincinnati’s 23-17 drubbing of the Baltimore Ravens marked the completion of a 7-1 second half and allowed them to notch their first back-to-back winning seasons since the Paul Brown and Bill Johnson eras of 1975-1977 and repeat post season appearances since 81-82. More importantly, it marked the complete turnaround from a 3-5 start and earned them a return trip to Houston—the site of last season’s 31-10 playoff loss. Last season the Bengals were an upstart team with a rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton, leading the way. This post season the expectations are different for the Bengals. An only slight underdog, Cincinnati has a year of seasoning under their belt, an aggressive defense, and could very easily be riding an 8 game winning streak into the playoffs. A rematch with Houston will provide a year-over-year litmus test and the 2011 goal of making the playoffs has been replaced by strong hopes that the Bengals can deliver their first playoff victory since 1990 when Sam Wyche patrolled the sidelines.

For the Houston Texans expectations coming into the season were set with all eyes on a February trip to New Orleans. 2011 saw Houston get over the hump by winning the AFC South and entering the post season for the first time. However, expectations were quickly tempered when a season ending injury limited Matt Schaub to 10 starts. A subsequent injury to backup QB Matt Leinhart gave way to TJ Yates—even further dashing Super Bowl hopes. The Yates led Texans managed to notch the first playoff victory in franchise history against the Bengals before bowing out to the Ravens. This year, fully loaded and healthy, Houston started 11-1 and appeared a virtual lock to earn some wild card weekend rest and home field advantage through the playoffs. Then, four consecutive matchups against teams currently playing in this post season led to three losses and Saturday’s once unlikely rematch. Nonetheless, Houston enters this weekend boasting both an offense and defense ranked in the league top ten.

The Keys for Cincinnati
For the second consecutive season Mike Zimmer’s defense is amongst the top 10 in the league and particularly strong against the run. However, in the first playoff game against Houston the Bengals defense was gashed for over 150 yards by Arian Foster and a Houston offense that lacked their starting quarterback and typically strong passing attack. Geno Atkins and company cannot afford such a letdown this season and must limit the production of Foster by all means necessary. If Cincinnati can limit Foster’s production and also put pressure on Matt Schaub they will find an offense that is not as dissimilar to their own despite what the numbers indicate. While the Bengals have limited downfield receiving options beyond AJ Green and Jermaine Gresham, the same can be said for Houston beyond Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels. If Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and company can be effective up front versus Foster and also apply pressure then the Bengals and their talented secondary will gain advantages over all receivers not named Johnson.

BenJarvis Green-Ellis is banged up and even healthy it would be unlikely that the Bengals could gain an advantage against the Houston front seven to sustain a strong rushing attack. The key for the Bengals is for the offensive line to limit JJ Watt and the Houston pass rush long enough for Green, Gresham, and a supporting cast of supplementary receivers led by deceptively talented Andrew Hawkins to do damage in the secondary. Andre Smith must do his best to contain Watt who devastated the Bengals in last season’s matchup. If Dalton is to reverse the results of his 0 touchdown 3 interception performance in his playoff debut it will start with pass protection.

The Keys for Houston
As Houston limps into the post season the key elements to reverse the recent course of failure are very similar to the pertinent areas of focus documented for Cincinnati to pull off their own victory. If the Bengals need to hold up to Watt and win at the line of scrimmage the same can be said for Houston. Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson have accounted for 33 of the Bengals 50 sacks on the season and Schaub has found himself on the receiving end of nearly a dozen sacks in the last three games—this will need to change for Houston to be successful. The Texans zone-blocking scheme will need to find its early season success so that Foster and the running game can run the ball to protect Schaub. It will also be useful in setting up Foster both in the red zone and allow him to be successful on screens in the flat. Like the Bengals, Houston is going to be hard pressed to find a consistent third vertical threat against the talented opposing secondary—but that does not mean they will be unable to do enough to make Johnson, Daniels, and Fosters big enough threats in the passing game to be victorious.

Defensively, Houston will have to use their pressure game. Watt, quite possibly the most dominant defensive player in the NFL, leads an attack that is duly adept at getting to the quarterback and stopping the run. They must both pressure Dalton and render the already injured Green-Ellis a non-factor. If they do so the matchup of Jonathan Joseph, with some help from Danieal Manning, against Green becomes much more manageable.

The Outcome
This game has all the makings of a classic defensive battle pitting two of the NFLs finest defensive units and coordinators in Wade Phillips and Mike Zimmer against each other. Cincinnati has been superb with its season on the line—which it was from the point they fell to 3-5 until they clinched a post season spot in week 16. Andy Dalton looks more like a QB poised to take the next step than the rookie who faced the harsh reality of playoff football a year ago. However, one needs to take a deeper look at the Houston late season slump before dismissing them as a team bound to finish the season with a fizzle. In two of the three late season losses they faced mad bombers Tom Brady and Andrew Luck both of who trump Dalton’s deep passing prowess. In the other loss, one in which they contained the passing game, they were dominated by the juggernaut that is Adrian Peterson—of whom Green-Ellis is not.

Houston’s season has resembled a powerful heavyweight prizefighter that dominated early on in battle only to run seemingly out of gas late in the fight. Fortunately, they racked up enough points on the scorecard to survive to win a decision and live to fight another day. The playoffs mark a new fight and Houston should have enough in the tank to win an early round home game.

Houston Texans 21 – Cincinnati Bengals 14

Jan 042013
 

Ravens-ColtsThe disintegration of the already tenuous relationship between Joe Flacco and the Baltimore fans has continued its downward trajectory along with the Ravens record after Baltimore’s 9-2 start gave way to a 1-4 finish. Nevermind Flacco’s 54-26 record in Baltimore or that since taking over as a rookie in 2008 he has become the only QB in history to lead his team to at least one post season victory in each of his first four seasons. It has gone virtually unmentioned the Flacco has improved in every single major statistical category from 2011 to 2012; as it’s the drop in wins from last season’s 12 to 10 that has the championship thirsty city on edge. His 309 yard 2 TD performance in Baltimore’s week 16 decimation of the Giants seemingly has gone unnoticed. Perceptions couldn’t have changed more dramatically than they have for Flacco who less than a calendar year ago executed a near perfect 2 minute drive in the AFC Championship only to have the NFL gods strike down and snatch victory at the last moment. Nonetheless, for the fifth time in Flacco’s five years—and second as division champion-the Ravens are heading to the playoffs.

For the opposing side, the Colts Andrew Luck has earned in 16 games a level of adulation from the city of Indianapolis seemingly reserved for the likes of only Peyton Manning. His 7 game winning drives are the most by an NFL QB since 1970 and no rookie in this stellar class has been asked to do more downfield with so little in the backfield (there is no Marshawn Lynch, Alfred Morris, Trent Richardson, or even Reggie Bush in the Colt lineup). Luck had dropped back nearly 650 times and only 4 QBs have been sacked more, nevertheless, Luck has nearly single-handedly resuscitated and transformed a team that was 2-14 just a year ago into an 11-5 contender.

In the 28 years that have elapsed since Robert Irsay drew the ire of the city of Baltimore by jetting for Indianapolis in a move that made economic sense and Jim Irsay drew equal ire from the city of Indianapolis by jettisoning Peyton Manning (another fiscally prudent move) much has changed. Manning brought a pair of AFC Titles and a Super Bowl to Indianapolis and Art Modell brought a team and title to Baltimore. As playoff opponents this marks the third meeting between the two franchises. The first two acts took place in Indianapolis and left much to be desired as Baltimore has managed only 12 points total. The most recent post season matchup with the two ended in a 20-3 Indy route in 2010 and marked Manning’s final victory in a Colt uniform.

The Keys for Indianapolis
Lining up for their 17th game, don’t expect wholesale differences for the Colt’s or any other team for that matter this late in the season (i.e. the Colts will not suddenly develop the ability to control the line of scrimmage or add a ground game to add balance to their attack). More than a touch of Luck will be required for the Colts to move on and they will need Luck to be every bit the quarterback that passed for more than 4,300 yards, was rivaled by only Flacco for most 20-plus yard completions, and posted 7 game winning drives.

The Colts will have their hands full handling Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs and the only hope to improve on the 104 yards per game they rushed for is if Anthony Castonzo can withstand Ngata’s pressure versus the run. Unfortunately for the Colts, RB Vick Ballard has only one carry of over 25 yards this season and Ngata spent week 17 re-charging his batteries. Factor in the return of Ray Lewis and it is likely the Colts will be at their one dimensional worst.

The Colts will have to do anything they can to factor in as many five-man routes as possible, giving Luck as many options as possible. His ability to get the ball deep has been a revelation considering the lack of a ground threat and while his tendency has been to go deep he will need check down options available. Luck’s ability to dissect the Ravens’ defense will be pertinent, and he has the perfect coaching scenario to help him identify those keys and giveaways. Chuck Pagano—prior to taking the Colts job—took a tour as defensive coordinator in Baltimore and knows their personal better than anyone.

The Colts 28-16 victory last week against Houston marked their first win over a winning team since early October and came despite being outgained by over 100 yards. Yet, Luck was able to do enough to exploit the secondary to notch the win in Pagano’s return. If Luck can continue his third down success that has masked the run deficiencies and the Colts utilize the other subtle qualities they bring into the game—namely returner Deji Karim’s recent explosiveness and Pagano’s knowledge of the opposition—they can find a way. It has been just that, the ability to find a way, which has positioned them at 11-5 despite being the only team in the post-season with a negative scoring differential.

Defensively the Colts will need to do what they can to limit Rice’s effectiveness between the tackles; if they can force him outside they can utilize what is perhaps their only asset against the run—their sideline to sideline speed. Like Luck, Joe Flacco has been victimized by a leaky offensive line. The Colts will hope to touch up Flacco and will need Vontae Davis to build on his two interception performance of last week and match up with speedster Torrey Smith.

The Keys for Baltimore
While defense has been the Baltimore calling and the names Suggs, Reed, Ngata, and Lewis still appear on the marquee a win for the Ravens will likely have to be attributed to the ability to exploit obvious weaknesses in the Colt defense. The Colts defense has allowed 137.5 rushing yards per game. While solid in pursuit, they fail to hold up well versus running backs that do damage between the tackles. Enter Ray Rice: the Ravens have won 23 of the 26 games when Rice has at least 25 carries. The Ravens will look to establish strong play by their tackles to allow Rice to control the pace of the game and effectively approach that 25 carry magic number.

In the passing game, the same group of tackles that will be key to springing Rice to a good game on the ground will have to do a better job than they have this year of protecting Flacco. When protected, Flacco can be accurate and effective and the Baltimore offense more than efficient. The Ravens thrashed the Giants for 533 yards in week 16 and, despite all the late season offensive turmoil, have averaged nearly 32 points per game at home. Baltimore has their own man from the other side in Jim Caldwell who manned the Colts sideline in both a tight Super Bowl loss and last season’s 2-14 debacle. Caldwell has spent the last month calling the plays for Baltimore and though results have been mixed he does have knowledge of Colt personnel.

There is not enough that the Colts can do to gain effectiveness against a Raven’s defense that will look to feed off of the emotional return to the lineup of Ray Lewis. While the Baltimore defense has lost a step or five they still hold enough advantages to boil things down to one focus: the ability of Ed Reed and the secondary to ground the third down passing attack that has been at the crux of Luck’s ability to bail out the Colts offense all season long.

The Outcome
The Pagano story has rightfully captured the hearts of NFL fans everywhere and has made the Colts a post season rooting favorite for fans that don’t have a horse in this race otherwise. If the sentiment of Ray Lewis potentially playing his last game at home can be trumped then it is Pagano’s remarkable return to the sideline after battling leukemia that has deserving done so. Though the luster seems to have faded from Baltimore many weeks ago it will be quite a challenge for the Colts to do what no team has done in the Flacco era and the Ravens to a winless post season.

Is Luck enough to lead a team that takes the field with 28 men playing their first postseason game? Baltimore is better on defensive and their running game foils the Colts direct weakness against the run. Furthermore, Jacoby Jones and the elite return game has the potential to exploit Indianapolis’ struggling coverage unit. This will be Ray Lewis’ last home game, but it won’t be his last game. The Ravens have too many advantages and they are at home. This week being pretty good is better than having ‘Luck’ on one’s side.

Baltimore 30 – Indianapolis 21

Dec 312012
 

lovie-smithThe Chicago Bears have fired Head Coach Lovie Smith after the team posted a 10-6 record, but failed to make the playoffs for a second straight season. The Bears made the playoffs in only three of Smith’s nine seasons as head coach, where he posted a 81-63 regular season mark and was 3-3 on the playoffs, reaching the Super Bowl in the 2006 season before losing to the Indianapolis Colts.

The Buffalo Bills have fired Chan Gailey after three seasons with the team. The Bills were 16-32 during his tenure. This season’s 6-10 record was a major disappointment after the Bills went on an off-season spending spree to try and improve their defense.

The Jacksonville Jaguars announced the firing of Gene Smith as GM. This was an expected decision, as new owner Shad Khan is looking to put his own management team together. It is likely that Head Coach Mike Mularkey will be joining Smith in the unemployment line soon. the Jaguars finished 2012 at 2-14.

Dec 112012
 

This was being described as the biggest game in the history of the Houston Texans’ franchise. As with most of their previous “biggest games” this one didn’t turn out well either.

It was a thoroughly convincing blowout from the opening drive on. Tom Brady went 21/35 for four touchdowns and no interceptions, Stevan Ridley ran for 72 yards and a score, and Brandon Lloyd caught seven passes for 89 yards and one touchdown as well as recovering a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown as the Patriots blasted the top seeded Texans in their Monday night showdown.

It’s not often that I am so happy to be so wrong.

Going into the game, I feared a disruptive Texans’ defensive front, complemented by a balanced offense featuring a deadly rushing attack and a quarterback who doesn’t make mistakes. In the end all of those things were true… of the Patriots. Instead of JJ Watt, it was Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo that shut down the opposing offense. Instead of Arian Foster and Matt Schaub carving up a Patriots’ defense that is known for giving up yards, it was Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen who combined for 112 yards, while Aaron Hernandez was a player for whom the Texans had no answers, catching 8 passes, including two touchdown receptions. But the biggest hero of the night for the Patriots was their much maligned secondary. Aqib Talib was instrumental in limiting Andre Johnson during the first half, allowing the Patriots to bring their safeties into the box to shut down Arian Foster and the Texans’ running game. After Talib went out with an injury, rookie Alfonzo Dennard stepped in and performed admirably. While Johnson caught 8 passes for 95 yards, neither he nor Foster were able to significantly impact the game. Kyle Arrington also made several key plays last night, and Devin McCourty grabbed a red zone interception to short circuit an early Texans’ drive.

Game recap

The Patriots dictated the action from the start. After some early defensive confusion forced the Patriots to call a time out on the Texans’ first drive, the Pats forced a punt, which Wes Welker returned 31 yards to set up the Patriots at their own 44 yard line. From there the Patriots needed seven plays to get in the end zone, keyed by an acrobatic Welker grab to get the ball to the 4. The Texans missed an opportunity on the next play when a Ridley fumble was recovered by Aaron Hernandez at the 7, and Brady connected with Hernandez on the next play for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. The touchdown pass marked Brady’s 45th straight regular season game with at least one touchdown pass.

The Texans responded well to the score, marching down the field on the Patriots with short passes before Matt Schaub hit Lestar Jean on a big 24 yard gain to get down to the Patriots’ 23. But two plays later Schaub bypassed a wide open Arian Foster trying to get the ball to Kevin Walter in the end zone, and McCourty stepped in the way to intercept it, returning the ball out to the 18. That play seemed to deflate the Texans early, and it only got worse as the Patriots then drove 82 yards on just six plays before Brady hit Brandon Lloyd on a wide open 37 yard touchdown pass keyed by effective play action. After another Texans’ punt, Brady then moved the Patriots 70 yards on 8 plays, keyed by a pass interference call against Dannieal Manning that kept alive the drive, which ended with another touchdown connection with Hernandez to run the lead to 21-0.

After that score, the game slowed down but the outcome was never really in doubt. New England seemed to move away from the running game as they went for the kill through the air, while Houston failed on two straight attempted fourth down conversions, and the half concluded with the 21-0 score.  The Patriots also started the third quarter off slowly, but got a big spark with 10:00 left in the quarter when on third and long Brady connected with Donte Stallworth on a 63 yard touchdown pass to increase the lead to 28-0. The Texans then finally mounted a scoring drive in response, going 88 yards on 7 plays before Arian Foster took the ball one yard to cut into the Patriots’ lead.

The Patriots got on the board again early in the fourth quarter on a bizarre play. Brady connected with Danny Woodhead deep in Texans’ territory, who broke a tackle and was on his way to the end zone when JJ Watt came up from behind and knocked the ball out of Woodhead’s hands. But everything was going the Patriots’ way Monday night and the ball rolled into the end zone where it was scooped up by Brandon Lloyd for a touchdown and a 35-7 lead.  On their next possession following a Houston punt, the Patriots ran Ridley six times and Shane Vereen twice, with Ridley getting the 14 yard touchdown to make the blowout complete. TJ Yates later scored after a Patriots’ turnover to close out the scoring.

When the Patriots ran
The Patriots ran the ball well at the beginning and the end of the game, and seemed to forget about the running game a bit in the middle, but the running display was solid. Ridley had 72 yards and Vereen added another 40, while four others combined for 18 yards. As has been the case so often this year, the Patriots ran well early to establish the threat and open up the pass, and then ran the ball to close out the game. Advantage: Patriots

When the Patriots passed
For such a blowout, the Patriots’ passing game was not overly sharp. Brady threw for 296 yards and four scores, but he misfired several times and Wes Welker dropped a couple of very catchable balls. Herenandez led the way with eight receptions and two scores, while Brandon Lloyd had a big evening with seven catches and one receiving touchdown (plus his fumble recovery). Welker had an off night, and both Danny Woodhead and Donte Stallworth helped with some big plays. The Texans’ secondary looked lost and outmatched throughout the game. JJ Watt did not record a sack or a batted pass, and the Texans only managed one sack on the night. Watt was able to get to Brady regularly, but only after Brady had already released the ball. The offensive line did an outstanding job in executing technique against the Texans’ defensive front to minimize disruptive plays. Advantage: Patriots

When the Texans ran
Because Aqib Talib was matched up one on one with Andre Johnson, the Patriots loaded the box, making it difficult for Arian Foster to find running room. Vince Wilfork was a nightmare inside for the Texans, grabbing four tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble. Foster gained 46 yards on the night, and so did Ben Tate, but Tate’s yards were in trash time after the game had long been decided. For the night, the Texans managed just 100 yards on the ground. Advantage: Patriots

When the Texans passed
Matt Schaub was not particularly sharp last night. If anything, he seemed to melt under the heat of a big game. He missed several throws and was under constant pressure from Wilfork and Jerod Mayo.  The Patriots only managed two sacks on the night, but the pressure on Schaub was consistent, as the single coverage in the secondary gave the Patriots the freedom to regularly blitz Mayo against the Texans’ signal-caller. Johnson had eight catches for 95 yards and Arian Foster added four catches for 39 yards, but it was a quiet night for the Texans’ passing game against an improving Patriots’ secondary. Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard did a great job in coverage against Andre Johnson. For the night Schaub was 19/32 for 232 yards, no touchdowns, and one pick. Advantage: Patriots

Special Teams
Wes Welker had an early 31 yard punt return to set up the Patriots’ first scoring drive, and the Patriots’ kicking game routinely gave the Texans poor field position to open drives. Conversely, the Texans committed three special teams penalties, contributing to their own lack of good field position. Advantage: Patriots

Intangibles
The first intangible is that while this was a “big” game for the Patriots, in truth the Patriots are used to playing in big games and this was business as usual. For the Texans, yet another “biggest game” ended in disappointment, and this one is already being referred to as “Texas Fold ’em”; the Patriots came out ready to play, while the Texans looked like deer caught in headlights. The Patriots’ coaching staff put together an outstanding game plan on both sides of the ball, and clearly out-coached Gary Kubiak and his staff. While the turnovers were equal at one each, their impact was not. McCourty’s interception killed a potential scoring drive early in the game, while the Patriots’ only turnover was on a late Ryan Mallett pass that was deflected into the arms of a Texans’ defender. Advantage: Patriots

 Key Moment: Devin McCourty’s interception in the first quarter to end a possible Texans’ scoring drive

Game Ball: Tom Brady, who executed with intensity and accuracy on the first three Patriots lead to stake the Patriots to an early 21-0 lead

Quote of the Game: “They just taught us how to play championship football,” Texans linebacker Bradie James said to the Houston Chronicle following the game. That they did, Bradie.

Dec 082012
 

My friends often call me a “homer” for the Patriots, and the accusation is both understandable and at the same time unfounded. While I pick the Patriots to win nearly every contest that they play, that’s also because I have the benefit of being a fan of the winningest team on the NFL over the past decade. They win most of their games, so it’s easy (and mathematically pragmatic) to pick them almost every week. And because the Patriots have not lost a game in the second half of the season in more than two years, it would be tempting to look at this contest and think that the Patriots are going to find a way to win this game at home, because that’s what they normally do.

But in truth I actually feel more confident about next Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers than I do about this week’s contest with the Houston Texans. While the Niners are seen as a more physical opponent, they are inconsistent performers and are relying on an inexperienced quarterback. The 49ers make mistakes, and the Patriots are a team that capitalizes on mistakes; just ask Mark Sanchez. The Texans however, are not prone to making many mistakes, and have been a very consistent team this season, even if they are not flashy. Although their defense has struggled in recent weeks, this is due to injuries, and the Texans have still have a way to win the contests they were in, just like the Patriots do. And like the Patriots the Texans are a solid running team who also excel at stopping the run. Finally, for more similarity, Houston is an efficient passing team that also struggles against the pass. This is the type of match-up that the Patriots are entirely capable of winning, but the Patriots are very banged up right now, and are more focused on having healthy players for the post-season than they are in rushing players back for a Week 14 contest. In short, anyone who thinks I am going to be a homer this week is in for a disappointment.

When the Patriots run:
Stevan Ridley has emerged as the Patriots’ lead back this season with 1,010 yards (7th in NFL) with a 4.5 ypc average and nine touchdowns. He is complemented by Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, and Brandon Bolden, who is returning from a suspension. While the Patriots have the 8th best rushing attack in the league (140.8 ypg), they will likely find it difficult to run consistently against the Texans, who only give up 87.6 ypg. Shaun Cody is back from a serious injury at defensive tackle and is strong against the run. He is flanked by JJ Watt and Antonio Smith. Tim Robbins and Barrett Ruud are the inside linebackers, and are a far cry from where the Texans started the season with Brian Cushing inside and Brooks Reed outside. Expect the Patriots to seek to exploit the edges and take advantage of the pass rush to find running room. The Patriots should be able to rush for about 120 yards this week.

When the Patriots pass:
This is normally an automatic advantage for the Patriots, who rank sixth in passing. The Texans are not strong against the pass, and Jonathan Joseph is returning this week but is not having a great year. He is playing opposite Kareem Jackson, who has four interceptions this season. Danieal Manning and Glover Quinn struggle to cover in space, so the Patriots should be able to exploit a mediocre secondary. The trouble for the Patriots is who is left to do so? Welker and Lloyd are the primary receivers, while Hernandez is playing his way back into shape after an extended absence. Edelman is done for the season, so the Patriots signed re-tread Donte Stallworth, who can play both outside and in the slot. I would expect to see the Pats throw in a heavy does of screens in an attempt to get the ball into the hands of Vereen in space. Watt and Smith both excel at bringing pressure, and Connor Barwin also gets in on the action. It is critical that the Patriots’ makeshift offensive line be up to the task of neutralizing the pass rush, which will be aided if the Patriots utilize the spread formation. While Logan Mankins is expected back, Sebastian Vollmer’s back seems to be bothering him, as he did not look sharp last Sunday against the Dolphins. Look for Brady to throw for over 260 yards, but also look for the Texans to create a big play off of a Watt deflection or off a sack.

When the Texans run:
Arian Foster is one of the best in the game, and he currently ranks fifth with 1,102 yards this season, along with a league-leading 13 rushing touchdowns. He is complemented by Justin Forsett, who has rushed for 364 yards and one touchdown. The Patriots are solid against the run. Wilfork generally requires double coverage, and Mayo and Spikes are big hitters who force turnovers; the Patriots should be able to stuff the middle. They are however, susceptible to edge rushing. Foster has great vision and burst, and has tackle-breaking strength. Look for Foster to rush for over 100 yards as he rips off several big gains.

When the Texans pass:
Matt Schaub isn’t heralded as an elite quarterback, but he is certainly one of the best. Schaub has a passer rating of 94.5 with 3,062 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. He is not prone to making big mistakes, so the Patriots pass rush, which is inconsistent at best, will have to force Schaub to make errors. Chandler Jones is looking like he might return this week, which would be big for a team that is struggling to generate pressure on the opposing quarterback. Andre Johnson is having a solid year with 74 receptions for 1,114 yards and three touchdowns, while Owen Daniels has 50 receptions. Arian Foster is often the third option in the passing game, and Kevin Walter is a sturdy and reliable target. The Texans like to use two tight end sets, and could take advantage of the Patriots’ linebackers and get some big gains down the field. The Patriots’ secondary is starting to gel, but they will be challenged by the Texans, and Schaub is not likely to miss the types of throws that Ryan Tannnehill missed last week. McCourty is a more natural fit at safety, while Talib and Dennard are both capable of making big plays, but also can get burned. Talib will be matched up with Johnson, and must have a good game for the Patriots to slow down the Texans’ offense. Arrington is looking much better now that he is playing a more limited number of snaps. Expect Schaub to throw for around 250 yards.

Special Teams:
The Patriots’ kicking game is good but not great. Gostkowski is generally a reliable kicker who has struggled this season, while Mesko doesn’t have a booming leg, but can pin opponents deep. The Patriots’ return game took a hit with the loss of Edelman, while Devin McCourty is an inconsistent kickoff returner who can occasionally rip off a big return. For Houston, Shayne Graham is a good, but not spectacular kicker, while Donnie Jones is one of the best punters in the league. Keshawn Martin is a dangerous returner, particularly in the punting game.

Intangibles:
Injuries are never an excuse for losing in the NFL, and the Patriots historically personify the concept of “next man up” better than any team in the league. None the less, the Patriots will be tested to stay competitive in this contest. Rob Gronkowski remains out, while Aaron Hernandez is still playing his way back into game shape, and the loss of Julian Edelman hampers the receiving corps. The offensive line can’t seem to stay intact for an entire series, let alone an entire game, so the Patriots will be challenged to stop Watt and the Texans’ pass rush. On defense the Patriots are healthier, particularly in the secondary, but the loss of Jermaine Cunningham to suspension while he was having his best season raises concerns for the Patriots’ pass rush. The Texans have already adapted to life without Brian Cushing, and are getting healthier in the secondary with the return of Jonathan Joseph, and otherwise appear a bit healthier coming into this contest. The war of attrition slightly favors the Texans.

With regard to turnovers, the Patriots are the league’s best, with 33 takeaways and only 9 giveaways this season, for a difference of +24. The Texans are tied for second in the league with 26 takeaways and 12 giveaways, for a difference of +14. Both teams know how to create turnovers and how to protect the ball, but the Patriots get a slight edge here.

The Texans win if…
Arian Foster gets some early yards, forcing the Patriots’ safeties to bite on play action. Matt Schaub is more than capable of putting the ball over the top to beat one on one coverage. The Texans also win if they force multiple Patriots’ turnovers.

The Patriots win if…
they beat the pass rush by spreading the field to pick apart a weak Texans’ secondary, complemented with screens and single-back draws. Forcing Arian Foster to put the ball on the ground would be very helpful as well.

Prediction:
If these two teams meet in the post-season with Gronkowski, Cunningham, Bolden, and Hernandez in the line-up along with a healthier offensive line, I will pick the Patriots because I am confident that the Patriots’ passing attack would be the difference. As it is I really want to believe that the Patriots are going to find a way to pull out a win, but there are simply too many question marks across the team to allow me to go there. In Week 14, with the Patriots’ seriously banged up, and with this being the team’s first look at the Texans, I think the advantage goes to Houston. Look for JJ Watt to be a disruptive force against the Patriots’ line, pressuring Brady and challenging his passing lanes. Brady looked decidedly uncomfortable last week against the Dolphins pass rush and was was not as effective as usual as Miami recorded four sacks, and I expect Houston to be just as disruptive to the New England passing game. The depleted receiving corps offsets an advantage that the Patriots would otherwise have against the Texans’ secondary. After Welker, who is going to step up? On the other side of the ball, Arian Foster is exactly the type of running back that can drive the Patriots’ defense nuts, and Justin Forsett is a very capable change of pace back. Matt Schaub is having a solid season throwing the ball, and while the Patriots’ secondary is improving, Schaub is far better equipped than Ryan Tannehill was last week to take advantage of the Patriots’ lapses and miscues. Look for Schaub to throw for more than 250 yards, and look for Foster to be the second back to rush for 100 yards on the Patriots this season. I look for a conservative first half before the Patriots make a mistake or two (or the Texans create one). The Patriots will play catch up in the 4th quarter, but I am expecting a 31-27 game in favor of the Texans.