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Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Texans present challenge
As an NFL team readies for its next round of battle, it's typical for preparations to focus on figuring out where a team is most vulnerable and finding a way to exploit it. Bill Belichick and New England are no different in this regard, and considering their next encounter is against the conference-leading Texans on Monday night, the Patriots are blessed with an extra day to try and identify Houston's biggest weakness.
Though they may need far longer than that to actually find one.
After years of languishing in mediocrity because of their imbalance, the Texans arrive at Gillette Stadium with an ability to beat their enemy in just about every feasible fashion, and thus with a legitimate claim to the title of being the best and most complete team in football.
Their record reflects that, with an 11-1 mark matching Atlanta for the best in either conference. But the Falcons can't run the ball, nor can they can stop the run, and have seven wins by a touchdown or less. They're an excellent club, and certainly worthy of the top spot in the NFC - though they're a far more flawed team than the Texans.
Houston doesn't have those holes. It ranks second in points scored (29.3 per game) and fifth in points allowed (18.4). It ranks fifth in yards for (389.6) and sixth in yards against (322.6). It ranks sixth in rushing offense (142.5 yards) and second in rushing defense (87.6 yards). Its passing offense ranks 10th league-wide in per-game yardage (247.1) - and before pinpointing a 19th-ranked pass defense (235.0) as the exploitable weakness, consider that the same unit ranks third in sacks (36), fifth in takeaways (26) and first in opposing completion percentage (53.0 percent).
"Pretty much every statistic that you could name, they're on top of the league," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. "That's why they're 11-1 - they're playing great. They're taking the ball away; they get a lot of balls batted down at the line of scrimmage, interceptions, fumbles.
"They've won a lot of close games. They've won overtime games. They've come from behind. They've won on the road - they're 6-0 on the road. I think our guys understand the challenge, and we have to play our best game."
Brady's biggest worry has to be J.J. Watt, the second-year end who is considered by most around the league to be the frontrunner for defensive player of the year honors, and has the numbers to make a pretty compelling case for himself. He's the Texans' leading tackler, with 60, but more impressive is that 14 have been behind the line of scrimmage, and that count doesn't even include his 16.5 sacks.
Five of those have come in his last two games, and he has recorded at least half a sack in all but two contests this year - though even if he doesn't get all the way to the quarterback he's still plenty disruptive. A converted tight end with impressive athleticism, he's swatted down 15 passes, so even if the Pats' linemen get him blocked that's something Brady will still need to manage, particularly on his favorite shorter routes.
"He does everything well," Belichick said. "He's long, he's quick, he's instinctive, he has a high motor, plays hard, good balance, hard to knock off his feet. He does it all."
Watt is part of the solid 3-4 front steered by Wade Phillips, who might've been a failure of a head man in Dallas but generally has his team well-prepared and well-coached as the defensive coordinator in Houston. If there is any chink in the unit's armor it comes in the secondary, where injuries have done damage and upper-tier quarterbacks (and, randomly, Chad Henne) have had success.
Peyton Manning threw for 330 yards against it, while Matthew Stafford passed for 441. Aaron Rodgers pinned Houston with its lone loss by throwing for 338 yards and six touchdowns. But the Packers' total that day represents 30 percent of the aerial scores the Texans have allowed for the season. And even if a foe scores on Houston, its offense has the requisite firepower to fight back.
Matt Schaub is an above-average signal caller in the midst of an excellent season. His offensive line has allowed the fewest sacks in the AFC. Arian Foster has 1,102 rushing yards and 13 touchdown runs. Owen Daniels could be a killer Monday given the Patriots' problems covering tight ends. And then, of course, there's Andre Johnson, the receiver who is on pace for his third career 1,400-yard season.
They can run, they can pass, they can protect. And they can prevent opponents from doing any of the three on the other side - so to win Monday night it'll probably require the Patriots to play their best game of the year.
Because it won't likely happen if they go looking for a weakness.
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UNDERRATED: Gary Kubiak. Houston isn't exotic in terms of personnel packages or scheme, with Belichick saying the Patriots know what to expect, it's just that the Texans execute everything so well it's still tough to defend. That's a credit to preparation and fundamentals, both of which start with the head coach.
OVERRATED: Mario Williams. The former franchise cornerstone is hardly missed in Houston, with the defense as good as ever despite his departure to Buffalo.
KEY MATCHUP: Watt vs. Sebastian Vollmer and help. Generally, the Patriots offense is tough to stop when Brady is protected. Monday night, that starts right here.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Brandon Lloyd. The Pats' receiver was targeted only once last week, but he'll need to be more of a factor this week - not only with Julian Edelman done for the season, but with the Texans' ability to bat passes likely forcing Brady to throw more toward the outside.
STAT OF THE WEEK: When the Texans took the field Nov. 18, they had the third-ranked pass defense in football. They lost top cornerback Johnathan Joseph to a hamstring injury that afternoon, and now arrive in Foxborough rated 19th against the pass, having allowed 352 yards per game over the past three weeks after yielding 196 per the previous nine. Joseph is expected to return Monday.
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Dave D'Onofrio covers Boston sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com. Twitter: @davedonofrio