The second game of the Divisional Round kicks off on Saturday night when the Houston Texans pay Tom Brady and the New England Patriots a visit in Foxborough. It’s a rematch of their Week 3 meeting when the Patriots dominated Houston 27-0 with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. Much has changed since then, but many of the same key players remain in the fold.
To gear up for that pivotal game, we ranked the 11 most important players on the field. They’ll likely decide the outcome of this one, led by arguably the best player in the game today.
Whitney Mercilus, OLB
All the attention is on Jadeveon Clowney, but Whitney Mercilus is every bit the pass rusher Clowney is, if not better. He’ll be rushing from the other side against Marcus Cannon, who’s been rock solid this season. The combination of Mercilus and Clowney on the edges is a daunting one for any team to stop, and the Texans’ success defensively will largely hinge on their ability to get to Brady without blitzing.
Martellus Bennett, TE
Martellus Bennett isn’t Rob Gronkowski, but he does offer a similar skill set. He’s a big receiving tight end who can make plays down the field against Houston’s safeties. Furthermore, he’ll need to be a solid run blocker for Blount and New England’s backs, allowing them to get to the edge against Clowney and Mercilus.
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Julian Edelman, WR
Julian Edelman vs. A.J. Bouye is a matchup to watch and the winner will have a large impact on this game. Edelman is one of the top slot receivers in the game with his quickness and shiftiness in the open field. With Gronk injured, he’ll have to continue his hot streak and remain Brady’s favorite target. Edelman may be small, but he can make big plays in the middle of the field.
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Brock Osweiler, QB
As terrible as Brock Osweiler has been, he’s undoubtedly one of the most important players in this game. The Texans have proved that they can win when he plays poorly, but that won’t happen against the Patriots. He needs to be at his absolute best in order to keep pace with New England’s offense – or at least try to. If he struggles and throws multiple interceptions, there’s no chance Houston will win this game.
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A.J. Bouye, CB
Who? A.J. Bouye doesn’t receive much attention outside of Houston, but the free agent-to-be will make a name for himself in this game. He was one of the top Nickel corners in the NFL this season and is sure to cash in with a big payday this offseason. His rise has been similar to Josh Norman’s, and while he isn’t the shutdown corner that Josh is, he’s a great cover guy. With New England’s quickness in the slot, Bouye will be a weapon for Houston.
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DeAndre Hopkins, WR
I know, I know – DeAndre Hopkins wasn’t much of a factor this season with Brock Osweiler at quarterback. It’s a narrative that’s been discussed for weeks on end, and it won’t go away unless he has a breakout game on Saturday. He just might do that. The Patriots don’t give up big plays, but their cornerbacks aren’t exactly huge. Hopkins will have a size advantage in that department and with Osweiler’s improved accuracy downfield, he should come down with a few sideline passes.
LeGarrette Blount, RB
No one gets less attention than he deserves than LeGarrette Blount. He was quietly one of the league’s best running backs this season, and has been for the past few seasons. Considering how pass-happy the Patriots can get, it’s easy to understand why he gets overlooked. But in this game, against a strong Texans defense, it wouldn’t be surprising to see New England run it 30 times. Blount should find the end zone at least once and maybe twice in this one.
Nate Solder, LT
The guy tasked with blocking Jadeveon Clowney on the left side is Nate Solder. He’s had a decent season but he’s no Tyron Smith or Joe Thomas. That’s not to say he can’t shut down Clowney, but it won’t be easy. Keeping the enormous pass rusher off of Brady’s back will be a key to this game and will determine whether Houston wins or not. If Solder struggles and the Patriots have to send help his way, it could change the dynamic of the offense.
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Lamar Miller, RB
The Texans rode Lamar Miller against the Raiders, handing him the ball 31 times. His 31 carries were the most of his career, and while it’s largely due to the fact that Houston controlled the game, it also proved how much they want to ride him to take pressure off of Brock Osweiler. The Patriots were good against the run this season, but Miller is a game-changing back with tremendous speed in the open field. He can get the offense on track early.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE/OLB
Jadeveon Clowney is playing like he did at South Carolina when he was singlehandedly wrecking game plans. He was a dominant force against the Raiders last weekend, batting two passes and picking one off in just the first two series. He’s arguably the best player on Houston’s defense and will look to get after Tom Brady on every snap. If he can get a few hits on him early in the game, he’ll set the tone and force Brady to get the ball out quickly to avoid pressure.
Tom Brady, QB
There isn’t a more important player in this game, and there may not be one more crucial to his team’s success than Tom Brady. He’s proved that all season long and it won’t change in the playoffs. Without Rob Gronkowski, Brady will have to be at his best against a swarming and aggressive Texans defense, which will most certainly try to put him on his back as much as possible.