Key Matchups To Watch In Patriots vs Texans

You ready Patriots fans?

It might not feel like it with the Houston Texans coming to town, but we are less than 24 hours from the Patriots kicking off their first playoff game of the 2016 season.

Now you can listen to Dan Shaughnessy’s “march of the tomato can” narrative if you’d like.

The Texans were 9-7 this season. They are worse than the Patriots in nearly every facet of the game. Although I hate Shaughnessy’s condescending tone when the Pats drew Brock Osweiler and company it did feel like they were given a second bye week.

Yet here we are. The Pats and Texans will kickoff at 8:15pm eastern time on Saturday whether we think Houston has a chance in this game or not.

So like any other game in the NFL let’s forget what Shaughnessy said for a few minutes and look at some of the marquee matchups as the Patriots begin their drive for five Saturday night:

5. Lamar Miller vs Dont’a Hightower. Now this won’t necessarily be a one on one matchup like some of the others we will get to, but as the leader of the front seven Hightower will be at the core of the Patriots gameplan to control the line of scrimmage. Brock Osweiler’s $72 million contract got most of the headlines for Houston last offseason, but stealing Miller from the Miami Dolphins was my favorite move the team made prior to the 2016 season. Miller didn’t break out during the regular season like many expected, and he has never had a big game against the Patriots in his career, but if the Texans have any shot in this game they will have to get a solid performance out of their starting running back. Houston’s path to victory is murky, but in order to have a chance against the Patriots they’ll have to control the clock and keep Tom Brady off the field. Best way to do that is to get Miller going.

4. C.J. Fiedorowicz vs Patrick Chung. In the Week 3 matchup between these two teams the only consistent connection for Brock Osweiler was his tight end Ryan Griffin. Griffin led the team in targets and receptions in that game, but has fallen out of favor with coaches as Fiedorowicz has emerged as the guy at the position. The Patriots will focus a lot of resources defensively on the Texans outside receivers such as DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, so it will be up to Chung to take Fiedorowicz out of the game. Chung hasn’t been as dominant as a year ago in coverage, but is still a weapon in terms of covering tight ends in the passing game. The Patriots allowed just 3 touchdowns all season to tight ends so far, which is tied for the second fewest in the NFL. The Pats defense shut out the Texans the last time these two teams faced off and if Chung can take out Fiedorowicz while the rest of the secondary focuses on Hopkins, we might be headed towards a similar day for Houston’s offense.

3. Julian Edelman vs A.J. Bouye. Bouye has been one of the surprise breakout players in the NFL this season. The undrafted free agent has graded out spectacularly with the advanced metrics crew (#2 rated CB by Pro Football Focus) and has only allowed two touchdowns in coverage this season. Johnathan Joseph is thought to be the glue that holds this Texans secondary together, but its most talented player is Bouye. You could make a strong argument statistically that Julian Edelman has been one of the league’s top receivers since Week 10. His 748 receiving yards is tied for most in the NFL with the Packers’ Jordy Nelson, and no receiver has been targeted more than Edelman since Brady’s Week 5 return (132). Without Rob Gronkowski in the lineup Edelman is the defecto #1 in the Patriots offense, although Brady will spread the ball around to his weapons as he always does. If the Patriots want to make another Super Bowl run they’ll need Edelman to be the guy he has been over the last eight games or so, where he’s had 70+ receiving yards in every game.

2. DeAndre Hopkins vs The Rutgers Trio. It’s hard to believe that in three career games vs the Patriots Hopkins has never caught a touchdown or eclipsed 80 receiving yards in any of his three contests vs Bill Belichick. The Pats have deployed an extremely successful gameplan against the talented Hopkins in years past, as the star receiver has gotten doubled by two thirds of the Rutgers trio almost every snap when the two teams square off. Logan Ryan has had tremendous success on Hopkins in his career as the Patriots have opted to use their #2 CB with safety help to slow down the Pro Bowler. D-Hop draws double teams on a weekly basis and one of the biggest problems for the Texans offense this season has been Brock Osweiler’s inability to fit throws into tight windows so that Hopkins can make plays. Hopkins has struggled with drops at times, but #1 receivers deal with defenses scheming their demise every week, and it’s up to the quarterback to make some big time throws so that a guy like Hopkins can make plays. In key situations (red zone, 3rd down) I do think you’ll see a little of Malcolm Butler on Hopkins, but Ryan will primarily be in coverage, and will be aided all night by Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty. Having said that, it does feel like it’s only a matter of time before Hopkins makes a big catch in a big spot against the Pats.

1. Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus vs Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon. The calling card of the Texans defense this season has been the exotic fronts that defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has implemented with his talented pass rushers in Clowney and Mercilus. That’s why it’s tough to predict which edge rusher for Houston will line up across from Solder and which will rush against Cannon in this game. With both tackles playing well there’s no clear advantage to be had. Last week, Clowney dominated Raiders backup left tackle Menelik Watson who replaced All-Pro Donald Penn who missed the game due to injury. This matchup will most likely decide the Texans fate in this game. If Clowney and Mercilus can consistently pressure Tom Brady their defense can keep the game close, but if Solder and Cannon get the better of the two it’s going to be a long day for the Houston secondary.

BONUS: Tom Brady vs Romeo Crennel. Crennel has a strong argument for coordinator of the year this season after the Texans lost their best defensive player for the year (J.J. Watt) to a back injury earlier in the season. Despite Watt’s absence Crennel’s defense has excelled due to his strong leadership and fantastic defensive schemes. As I mentioned earlier, Crennel’s calling card this season has been how he has moved his playmakers in the front seven (Clowney, Mercilus, ect.) around to confuse opposing offensive lines and signal callers. Romeo also has his defensive backs playing good, discipline football as the Texans don’t give up very many big plays in the passing game either. Can Brady’s old friend do enough to confuse #12? It will be tough seeing Brady has seen just about everything at this point, but if Crennel doesn’t come up with a tremendous gameplan to slow down this Patriots offense the Texans truly have no chance.