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

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.

Nov 232012
 

With just under seven minutes left in the 3rd quarter, the Houston Texans found themselves trailing the Detroit Lions 24-14 in their Thanksgiving match-up. Then Justin Forsett took a handoff from Matt Schaub and ran the ball for a six yard gain. Or what appeared to be a six yard gain. Or what should have been a six yard gain. Instead, after Forsett’s knee and and elbow contacted the ground (and thus ended the play) he kept running, going 81 yards for a touchdown.

Of course what should have happened is that a review of the play should have reversed the field decision and given the Texans the ball at their own 25 yard line, because all scoring plays are subject to booth review. Instead, the play was declared non-reviewable, and a touchdown that should never have been was allowed to stand.

How did this happen? Simply because Lions’ Head Coach Jim Schwartz threw the challenge flag on the play. In previous years such a play would have had to have been challenged from the sideline, but this year is the first season of reviewing all scoring plays. None the less, Schwartz’s emotions got the best of him, and the challenge flag was on the field before the play was even over.The officials then determined, as is outlined in NFL rules, that the challenge was illegal and unsportsmanlike, requiring a penalty against the Lions. Further, the rules state that the Lions then cannot benefit from a challenge, even one normally scheduled to take place, and the play was therefore deemed non-reviewable. To add insult to injury, Detroit was assessed a 15 yard penalty on the ensuing kickoff for the illegal challenge.

The Texans would go on to win the game 34-31 in overtime, leaving Lions’ fans outraged over the egregious call on the field that sparked the controversy. It was an error more befitting the replacement officials that we began the year with than the “real” officials, but they are human and screwed the call up on the field. And it only got worse from there.

I am not arguing that the call made the difference in the game. There was still well over a quarter of football to play, and both teams squandered opportunities to win the game in overtime before Shayne Graham finally connected on a 32 yard field goal with 2:21 left in the extra session to give the Texans the victory. The mistake simply became a part of the game, and the Lions had numerous opportunities to make sure that the play did not cost the Lions the game. The loss itself is on the Lions.

Nor am I arguing that the officials made the wrong call in their enforcement of replay rules. Point in fact, they enforced the rules exactly as they are written.

And that brings us to the real culprit; the rule itself.

Presumably, the NFL changed the rule this year to review all scoring plays in order to make sure that the officials got calls right on the plays that had the greatest impact on the game. Secondarily, I imagine that the rule was changed because the challenge system is inherently flawed; why is it the Head Coach’s responsibility to seek to correct the mistakes of the officials? Ever since the challenge system was created, I have advocated for booth review of all plays, buzzing down to the referees for further review whenever necessary. After all, if the emphasis is on getting it right, then let’s remove the doubt. Instead, the NFL created a ridiculous challenge system whereby coaches were given two challenges over the course of the game and, if they were better at officiating than the officials, they could earn a third for two successful challenges. So what if the officials make four mistakes against the same team? This arbitrary and illogical system seemed to straddle some strange concern over whether or not officials would be offended by the use of replay. My advice to the NFL? Get over it already. If we’re going to have replay, which only makes sense given the speed of the game and the technology available to us, then let’s use it to make sure that all calls are correct.

Even worse, instead of creating rules that reinforced the idea of getting calls right, the NFL adopted a rule penalizing a coach and team for an illegal challenge and then making plays non-reviewable. The only possible conclusion to the NFL’s logic is that it is more important to make sure that the Head Coach doesn’t throw a weighted red bag onto the field than it is to get the call right. Right? On what planet does it make sense to prioritize the convenience of the officials over the need to call the game right?

Jim Schwarz was overly gracious in taking full responsibility for the mistake by saying, “Yeah, I know that rule,” Schwartz said. “You can’t challenge a turnover or a scoring play and I overreacted. I was so mad that they didn’t call him down ’cause he was obviously down on the field. I had the flag out of my pocket before he even scored the touchdown. That’s all my fault. I overreacted in that situation and I cost us a touchdown.” No, Jim. It’s really not all your fault, at least not yours alone. This is also the fault of a system that was not very well thought out, and that considered getting the call right to be a secondary concern.

This rule is one that is likely to be changed, and the biggest wrangling seems to be over whether or not the change will occur during this season or if it will wait until after the season. In any event, it is unfortunate that a game as good as the one yesterday had to be tainted with such a horrible call on the field, and a ridiculous league rule that prevented a correction of the mistake. The call itself is no better, and probably worse, than the one made by replacement officials that awarded a touchdown to Golden Tate in the Seahawks’ win over the Packers. And this one was created by the guys we trust. At least in this case Forsett at least had the decency to later admit that he was down even if he didn’t think so at the time.

Ironically, this call was made by a field crew headed by Walt Coleman. Coleman is famous (or infamous) for being the referee who reversed his own decision in the famous 2002 “Tuck Rule” game (more appropriately referred to by Patriots’ fans as the Snow Bowl) which awarded the ball to the Patriots after Tom Brady had appeared to fumble. The Patriots, of course, went on to win due to two clutch field goals by Adam Vinatieri, and then went on to beat the Steelers in the AFC Championship before beating the St. Louis Rams to claim their first Super Bowl title. A huge difference, of course, was that the call on the field in the game yesterday was dead wrong, a major mistake by the officials on the field. In the 2002 game, the call on the field seemed to make sense from initial visible evidence (even Brady thought it was a fumble), but the replay was used to correct the call on the field to match NFL rules, whether or not one agreed with the rule. In the case of the tuck rule, eleven years later the rule is still in effect, is used at least a couple of times each season, and makes sense as a rule even if people disagree with its enforcement. In yesterday’s game, the officials were prevented from correcting their own mistake and conforming to league rules, because someone, somewhere was more worried about officials having to deal with an occasional bean bag being thrown out of order. And that rule gets our tag for being the dumbest rule ever.

May 222012
 

 

Houston Texans

Head Coach: Gary Kubiak

Projected Starting Quarterback: Matt Schaub

2011 Record:  10 wins, 6 losses (1st in AFC South)

1-1 in postseason (lost in Divisional round)

13th in Total Offense, 2nd in Total Defense

2002-2011 10 year record: 65 wins, 95 losses (T-25th in NFL)

1 win, 1 loss in postseason

No Super Bowl appearances

0-0 All-time in Super Bowl