Patriots-Texans Preview

The Houston Texans need a win and help to earn the first playoff

berth in franchise history, but they’re happy to at least have

something to play for in Week 17 for the first time in their eight

seasons.

The New England Patriots, meanwhile, are happy their

regular-season finale is relatively meaningless, and some of their

banged-up starters will likely get some rest as they tune up for

the playoffs Sunday at Houston.

The odds are still against the Texans completing their push to

make the postseason, hampered by four straight losses by a combined

19 points from Nov. 8-Dec. 6. But Houston has at least given itself

a chance by winning its last three games, including last Sunday’s

27-20 victory at Miami.

To advance, the Texans (8-7) need to beat New England and get

losses from two of three teams – Baltimore, Denver and the New York

Jets. The Ravens face Oakland and the Broncos host Kansas City,

matchups that seemingly put a damper on Houston’s prospects.

But coach Gary Kubiak is still happy with his team, which can

secure its first winning season by defeating the Patriots.

“We’re going to have to beat the top franchise in football to

get to that point,” Kubiak said. “So it’s a great challenge for us

as coaches, as players, and I think that’s the way it’s supposed to

be. If we want to get there some day, these are the types of people

we’ve got to be able to compete against.”

Houston certainly responded well to its latest challenge, racing

to a 27-0 lead before holding off the Dolphins’ comeback bid. Matt

Schaub threw for 286 yards and two touchdowns, including one to Pro

Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson.

The duo has formed the league’s most prolific combination this

season. Schaub leads the NFL with a career-high 4,467 passing

yards, while Johnson has a league-best 1,504 receiving.

“That’s why we’re here – to take this franchise to the next

level,” Schaub said. “All we can do is control what we do, and

that’s what we did (against Miami).”

Schaub will try to pick apart a New England pass defense that

has shown major improvement in recent weeks. After allowing nearly

700 combined passing yards in back-to-back losses to New Orleans

and Miami just after Thanksgiving, the Patriots have held opponents

to an average of 164.0 passing yards during a three-game winning

streak.

New England (10-5) missed the playoffs last year, but it locked

up the team’s seventh AFC East title this decade with a 35-7

blowout of Jacksonville last Sunday.

Tom Brady threw four touchdown passes, including three to Randy

Moss, and the Patriots looked more like the team that went 16-0 in

2007 than the one that has struggled with inconsistency this

season.

“It’s the time of year where we really need to start playing

good football,” Brady said, “and I think (Sunday) was one of our

best 60 minutes that we played all year.”

While the Patriots could end up with either the No. 3 or No. 4

seed in the AFC, their first-round opponent in either position is

still to be determined, with the Texans even a possibility. That

means New England can gain little from a victory, giving coach Bill

Belichick the option to limit his starters’ playing time.

“I do what’s best for our football team,” Belichick said.

“That’s my philosophy.”

Most likely to spend some or all of the game on the bench are

injured defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren – and perhaps

Brady, who has dealt with rib, finger and shoulder problems.

Belichick remained cryptic about his plans.

“Whoever plays, plays,” the coach said. “Whoever doesn’t play,

doesn’t play.”

If Brady does play, he’ll see an all-too-familiar face on the

other side of the ball. The 2007 NFL MVP missed nearly all of 2008

after a major injury to his left knee that came on a hit by

then-Kansas City safety Bernard Pollard.

Pollard was cut by the Chiefs earlier this season and has

started the last 12 games for Houston.

“He’s given us some stability back there,” Kubiak said of

Pollard. “He’s given us a physical nature back there as far as

playing in the box and doing those things, so we’ve been very

pleased with him.”

The Texans had three defenders named to the AFC’s Pro Bowl

squad, including linebackers Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans. The

third was defensive end Mario Williams, but Kubiak said the No. 1

overall draft pick in 2006 “needs to factor more in the game” after

he didn’t record a tackle against the Dolphins.

The Patriots have won both previous meetings with Houston, but

their last visit to Reliant Stadium was more memorable. New England

beat Carolina 32-29 there in Super Bowl XXXVIII on Feb. 1,

2004.

The Patriots are 1-5 this season on the road, where they’ll have

to play in the divisional round if they win their playoff

opener.

Houston is 3-4 at home.