The New England Patriots look to snap their first two-game losing streak since 2012 when they travel to the Houston to take on the Texans Sunday night.
The Patriots (10-2), are coming off last week's 35-28 home loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Despite just 120 yards passing from Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford, Philadelphia was able to come away with the win thanks to some uncharacteristically sloppy New England play. Tom Brady threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for touchdown, while on special teams, the Patriots allowed a punt return for a score.
The Texans (6-6) return home after having their four-game winning streak snapped last week in Buffalo. The Houston defense, which allowed an average of 8.75 points per game during that span, gave up 30 points to Bills. Despite the loss, the Texans remain tied for first in the AFC South with the Indianapolis Colts. Houston star defensive end J.J. Watt broke his hand in practice Wednesday, but said he expects to play against New England without issue.
Here are three keys to the game for both the Patriots and the Texans.
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1. Double J.J. Watt in pass protection
Even hobbled by a broken hand, Watt is still the most dominant defender in the NFL right now, and has been for the past few years. Bill Belichick compared him to the great Lawrence Taylor, and with good reason. The Patriots' struggling offensive line will have their hands full trying to block Watt, so double-teaming him is a good idea. Even if the Patriots chip him at the line of scrimmage with a running back or tight end, it will help greatly. The Buffalo Bills were able to use that plan of attack last week and held him to zero sacks.
2. Take pressure off Tom Brady and receivers by running the ball
The Patriots have been reluctant to run the ball without Dion Lewis. LeGarrette Blount has averaged just 14 carries per game in the past four weeks with New England relying heavily on Brady to lead the offense. Unfortunately, the offensive line hasn't been able to protect Brady and the receivers have dropped more passes than any team in the NFL. Taking pressure off the aerial attack by running the ball against the Texans' 21st-ranked run defense should help give the offense a lift.
3. Utilize James White in the passing game again
Running back James White led the Patriots in both catches (10) and receiving yards (115) against the Philadelphia Eagles. That's not necessarily what a team wants to see, but he was effective. Brady shouldn't have any trouble getting White the ball frequently again this week, and he's likely his most reliable option at this point.
1. Get in Brady's face
Brady, while leading the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns, has been sacked 29 times, tied for ninth-most in the league. The Texans are coming off a performance in which they were only able to get to Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor once. It will be essential for Watt and Jadeveon Clowney to apply pressure to Brady to help take the burden off the Houston secondary. New England's offensive line has struggled of late and this is one area Watt and Clowney need to dominate to give the Texans a chance.
2. Emphasize the run
The Texans have rushed for more than 100 yards each of the last three weeks, using a mix of carries by starter Alfred Blue combined with sporadic use of the Wildcat triggered by wide receiver Cecil Shorts and running back Jonathan Grimes. The run should again be a priority against a Patriots defense that has given up more than 120 yards on the ground in both of the team's losses. The balance the threat of the run offers will allow Brian Hoyer more opportunity to make plays in the passing game. It also will help with time of possession, as the Texans need to sustain long drives to keep the ball out of Brady's hands as much as possible.
3. Cut down on the penalties
Last week against the Bills, Houston was penalized 10 times for 89 yards, drawing flags in all three phases of the game, including an unsportsmanlike conduct call on wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. As the Houston Chronicle noted this week, the Texans were called for an average of just 5.3 penalties per game during the team's four-game winning streak. It will take a disciplined effort across the board to beat a team like the Patriots, and the Texans can't afford to sacrifice yardage by making silly mistakes again this week.