Their reward for a job well done? A date this Saturday with the New England Patriots, a team that’s lost exactly once in the past three months. Oddsmakers are bullish on Tom Brady and company; the Texans opened as 16-point underdogs, which is not an NFL playoff record for widest point spread, but it’s not so far off, either. (Only three times in league history has a team faced such steep odds.) Folks in Massachusetts have watched the Pats outscore Houston by 92 points over their last five meetings. They are confident, to say the least. Even after the Raiders victory, the Texans still rank 27th in the Football Outsiders efficiency ratings. One Boston columnist calls it a “warmup act.” “It would take a catastrophic series of turnovers,” claims another, “for the Patriots to blow this one.”
For his part, Patriots head coach (and sweatshirt artist) Bill Belichick isn’t taking anything for granted. He spread the Texans compliments wide and thick on his weekly conference call with reporters this week—the backfield includes “very strong runners,” the inside linebackers are “as good as any combination that we’ve seen,” etc. And there are indeed precedents for teams with stout defenses and crappy quarterbacks advancing far deeper into the postseason than anyone expected. (The 2015 Broncos, for example, who employed Osweiler and won a Super Bowl.)
A few things to watch for this weekend:
- As expected, Lamar Miller got a crapload of touches against the Raiders, scampering for 73 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries, a career high. He’ll be the focal point of the offense again, and he’ll need to snuff out a few extra yards in early down situations. New England is no slouch up front; in 2016, its defense finished fourth in weighted rushing defense.
- It was nice to see DeAndre Hopkins find paydirt—somehow, it was only Nuke’s second touchdown since October 9. Obviously, this says more about the dudes throwing the ball his way than it does about Hopkins’ ability, and an upset of this magnitude will require some explosive plays from the Texans’ best target. Expect the Patriots to double-team #10 when possible, out of their Cover-Two man formation.
- The Texans’ D will need to take some chances. “It's very possible that Houston may need its defense to score multiple touchdowns to win this game,” writes Will Leitch, “so don't just be opportunistic: Be downright animalistic.” Easier said than done: Houston has only turned teams over 17 times this year (tied for 26th), while New England has forked it over just 11 times (first). How you feeling, J.J.?!?
Bill O'Brien wants his men to play "good, sound, fundamental football” on Saturday night. (Vince Wilfork wants Brady to drop the avocados and pick up some red meat.) In all likelihood, things will go to hell pretty quickly. But then again ... maybe they won’t?