While much has changed since these teams met in the playoffs, the New England Patriots know better than to overlook the woeful Houston Texans.
The Patriots try to build on last weekend’s remarkable victory Sunday when they visit the Texans, who are mired in their longest losing streak in franchise history.
After falling behind 24-0, New England (8-3) stormed back to beat Denver 34-31 in overtime last Sunday. Tom Brady threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns and Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 31-yard field goal with 1:56 left in OT after the Patriots recovered a live ball on a botched punt at the Broncos’ 13-yard line.
“One thing we’ve shown is that, mentally, we have some toughness. We’ve been in some bad situations,” coach Bill Belichick said. “We’ve been able to hang in there even when it hasn’t always looked great. But, really, I would say that the season for us is kind of starting now.
“The teams that play well in November, December and January, those are the teams that are standing in the end.”
New England, which has won 27 of 29 in December, increased its lead in the AFC East to three games after New York and Miami both lost last week. While the Patriots are closing in on a fifth consecutive division title, the Texans (2-9) have taken a big step back after two straight South crowns.
Houston, which went a franchise-best 12-4 last season before eventually falling 41-28 at New England in the divisional playoffs Jan. 13, is tied with Jacksonville in last place. The Texans have averaged just 15.3 points in losing nine straight.
“It’s been tough. It’s been frustrating,” said six-time Pro Bowler Andre Johnson, whose 1,002 receiving yards rank fourth in the NFL. “If I had to bet my life I wouldn’t think we would be in this position.”
Despite Houston’s woes, New England isn’t expecting anything to come easy.
“They have a lot of the same guys they had last year,” said Brady, who is 4-1 lifetime against the Texans, including playoffs. “We’re not even concerned about the record. You look at what they can do defensively and the kind of playmakers they have. … They have probably the best front we’ve faced all season.
“We have a big challenge. I don’t think we’ve really performed to our level of what we need to. We’re still building and trying to figure out what kind of team we’re going to be. This will be a good week to see if we can finally put together 60 good minutes.”
Houston came up short in losing 13-6 to Jacksonville. Rookie Case Keenum, who was benched the previous week against Oakland, recorded a passer rating of 54.7 after going 18 of 34 for 169 yards and an interception.
“We’ve got to find a way to eliminate some of the mistakes and some of the things that are happening to him,” said coach Gary Kubiak, who plans to stick with Keenum for the time being. “I think those will happen as he continues to play. You just, you want to find a young man some success.”
The ground game has also struggled, averaging 81.0 yards over the last three weeks. Ben Tate, who will continue to start in place of the injured Arian Foster, carried the ball seven times for one yard against the Jaguars. Backup Dennis Johnson had 74 yards on 13 attempts.
Tate could find more running room against a Patriots defense gashed for a season-worst 280 rushing yards last week. New England is allowing 139.7 per game to rank 31st in the NFL.
“I don’t know if he ever got into a rhythm with what he’s doing,” Kubiak said of Tate, who has been playing with broken ribs. “We know what he’s going through. He’s not practicing during the week, he’s just playing on Sundays. So I know that’s tough … but I think Ben will bounce back.”
Patriots running back Stevan Ridley could be in for a reduced role after fumbling in three straight games. He and LeGarrette Blount, who also lost a fumble in the first quarter against Denver, were benched for the remainder of the night.
Brandon Bolden ran for 58 yards and a touchdown while fellow back Shane Vereen compiled 91 total yards. Vereen had 124 total yards and three TDs against the Texans in January.
Houston will also need to be wary of Rob Gronkowski, who has scored in three straight games. Gronkowski leads all tight ends with 433 receiving yards - 80 more than the closest pursuer - since debuting in Week 7.
“Know your plan and be prepared,” reigning defensive player of the year J.J. Watt said when asked how to stop New England. “You have to know exactly what you’re supposed to do and how you’re supposed to execute it.”
The Texans, allowing an NFL-low 290.4 yards per game, also rank first in passing defense with 171.8. They could make things difficult on Brady, who has one touchdown and three interceptions during the Patriots’ three-game road losing streak.
New England hasn’t dropped four straight away from home since 2000.