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AFC South Game of the Week: Houston Texans at New England Patriots

The 11-1 Houston Texans are heading to New England next Monday night to take on the 9-3 Patriots in a game that could permanently shift the AFC playoff picture. Houston clinched their division last weekend, but they know that there’s more on the table for the taking if they want it.

“Now every time we step to the plate we can probably gain something else,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “So we just have to stay focused on that. Our last month is going to be difficult, but when it’s difficult, that’s what gives you the best chance to prepare to be a good football team in January.”

The Texans are four point underdogs in this game, and even though they have a better record than the Patriots, it’s easy to see why. The Patriots are 4-1 at home and scoring at an astounding, near historic pace. The Texans’ defense has been banged up lately, but they should get several key players back, including Shaun Cody and linebacker Darryl Sharpton.

“Getting Shaun Cody back gave us some versatility inside and took some snaps off some players, and we got our pass rush back,” Kubiak said. “I think a couple of things going on there helped us get back to playing our kind of football defensively. I think Sharpton’s more comfortable, this is three games he has under his belt. And he’s going to have to be, because he’s going to be big going down the stretch here.”

Of course, Houston’s defense has been sensational this season, largely because of the play of defensive lineman and Defensive Player of the Year candidate J.J. Watt. Watt has 15.5 sacks and has batted down an astounding 15 passes, a fact that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is well aware of.

“It’s like throwing over this wall. It’s hard,” Brady said. “You just have to try to find an area. We played other big d-lines before, tall guys that are rangy and are really instinctive. The Giants did a great job of that last year, and this is another team that really challenges you to do that.”

Even Patriots coach Bill Belichick, normally as gruff and reserved as they come, started breaking down the X’s and O’s in his press conference of what makes Watt such a special player.

“He’s a really good player,” he said of Watt. “And I think Houston, even though they’re a 3-4 base, they’re really an under team in their regular defense. It’s more of a one-gap scheme, and I’d say he’s a five technique a lot, and then when they go to sub, he’s an inside rusher. They’re in sub a lot; they’re probably in sub more than they’re in base. He certainly makes a lot of plays in the 3-4 defense. He’s got excellent quickness and he’s long. He does a good job rushing against everybody: the tackles, the guards, and he’s very effective on (rush) games because of his speed and quickness and his length and his instincts.”

However, despite the Patriots effusive praise of Watt, they could have a hay day in this game. The Texans pass defense has been extremely vulnerable since losing cornerback Johnathan Joseph to injury; they’re currently ranked 19th in the league against the pass. The Patriots, meanwhile, are sixth in the NFL in passing yardage. It’s a classic case of a strength going up against a weakness, though the Patriots are still concerned about Houston’s frequently-devastating pass rush.

“Any defense that he’s coached has always been a big challenge for us or any other team, and this one certainly is no different,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “This is an aggressive team that plays physical, tough defense. I think they play fast. They play very hard up front and do a lot of really good things with their front three or four depending on whether they’re in base or in a sub-mode.“

Ultimately, New England’s prolific passing attack will prove too much for the Texans’ injury-riddled defense in this one. Take the Pats at -4.

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