A lot has changed since the New England Patriots and Houston Texans locked up in late September in Week 3 when the Patriots rolled the visitors, 27-0. The ride has been much smoother for the Patriots, although on Saturday the Texans did get their franchise’s first postseason victory against a team not named the Cincinnati Bengals.
The outlook is fairly grim for the Texans ahead of this Divisional Round contest as 16-point underdogs, making the Patriots the biggest playoffs favorites since 1998 when the Vikings were deemed 16 points better than the Arizona Cardinals (and won 41-21). So what’s changed?
JJ Watt and Rob Gronkowski both went down for the season
The Houston Texans lost their best defensive player, three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, who played his last snap of the season at New England before succumbing to a back injury. Then in late November, the Patriots lost their top non-quarterback offensive player in man-child-beast Gronk, who played 14 snaps against the Texans in his 2016 debut. Both the Texans defense and Patriots offense have held up surprisingly well in their absences.
Brock Osweiler struggled badly then got benched then got re-installed
The high-priced free agent quarterback made only his 10th career start in New England, a forgettable shutout loss in which he completed 24 of 41 pass attempts for just 196 yards and one interception. Things hardly got better until head coach Bill O’Brien benched Osweiler in Week 15 before a Week 17 head injury to backup Tom Savage gave Osweiler another opportunity to start for the Texans against the Raiders in the Wild-Card round. By nearly every measure, the 26-year-old Osweiler was the league’s worst starting quarterback in the regular season.
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Tom Brady became the Patriots starter
After returning from his Deflate-gate suspension, of course. A combination of Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Jacoby Brissett, who started against Houston after Jimmy hurt his shoulder, quarterbacked the Patriots to a 3-1 pre-Brady record until Brady led the Patriots in a Week 5 thrashing of the Cleveland Browns. All Brady did in 12 games played was throw 28 touchdown passes against just 2 interceptions.
The Patriots defense got stingier
The sample size from Week 3 and earlier is obviously quite small, still New England improved to the top scoring defense in the league by a wide margin, allowing just 15.6 points per game and 17 points or fewer in 10 of their 13 remaining games. The Patriots have defended the run well all season but struggled to defend passing games at times due to an inability to generate much of a pass rush. It’s helped that the the Pats have faced an underwhelming group of opposing quarterbacks.
The Texans finally snapped their streak
It took until Week 10 in mid-November but the Texans finally stopped alternating home wins and road losses with a 24-21 victory at Jacksonville. Houston protected home field very well this season but managed just two road wins -- the other coming in a 22-17 victory in Week 14 at Indianapolis.
Bill O’Brien’s future with the Texans has become murkier
On New Year’s Day, prior to the Texans’ victory over the Raiders, FOX Sports NFL Insider Jay Glazer reported that the Texans head coaching gig might become a “surprise opening.” Glazer said O’Brien, in his third season at the helm, might agree with the team to part ways. There may be more smoke coming from Houston, at least enough that several teams with coaching vacancies appear to be waiting to find out about O’Brien’s status, according to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport on Saturday morning.
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Both teams got a key offensive contributor back on the field
The Patriots now have 2015 breakout running back Dion Lewis back after he tore his ACL the previous season. LeGarrette Blount has served as the Patriots bellcow rusher but Lewis’ workload has increased since his Week 11 return as he carried an average 17 times in Weeks 15 and 16. Lewis is also an adept receiver out of the backfield.
Meanwhile the Texans got their leading rusher back for the Raiders game after the first-year Texan Lamar Miller (pictured) missed two weeks with an ankle injury. Miller, along with the rest of the Texans, have an uphill battle at New England, which ranks fourth in the league in rushing defense.