Houston Texans (10-7) at New England Patriots (14-2)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET on CBS
TEXANS AT A GLANCE
Key Player: DE Jadeveon Clowney. Finally healthy, Clowney rose to the challenge of subbing for J.J. Watt with Watt on the shelf due to a back injury. If the Texans are going to have any kind of success against the Patriots and Tom Brady, the incredibly athletic Clowney will have to have the game of his life, beating the Patriots’ re-invigorated offensive line and pestering Brady early and often.
Why they’ll win: This is the NFL, and anything is possible – the New York Giants were underdogs against an undefeated New England team in Super Bowl XLII, and we all know how that turned out. But short of the Texans hiring some shady characters to kidnap Brady (and his backup Jimmy Garoppolo), it’s hard to see a scenario where they win.
Why they’ll lose: Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and Brady, as expected, have heaped praise on the Houston defense this week, but Brady is 7-0 all-time at home when facing the league’s top-ranked defense (in terms of yards allowed per game), as the Texans finished the regular season.
Keep in mind: The Texans are 1-6 all time against New England, the only win coming in the 2009 regular-season finale in Houston, when Wes Welker tore his ACL on the famously bad grass (since discarded) at NRG Stadium; they’ve totaled just 6 points in their last two meetings against New England, in Week 2 and in December 2015. And while Brock Osweiler played reasonably well against the Raiders last week, Houston had only 94 yards of offense in the second half, once it was clear Oakland wouldn’t be putting up much of a fight. Plus, the 27 points Houston scored tied their season high.
NEW ENGLAND AT A GLANCE
Key Player: RT Marcus Cannon. Cannon may owe offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who returned to the Patriots this season after a two-year retirement, his career. A serviceable player the last couple of years, Cannon gave up just one sack all season and was voted a second-team All-Pro. He’ll need to keep up that level of play to keep Brady clean with Clowney and Whitney Mercilus lurking (five sacks in two career playoff games).
Why they’ll win: It’s a long list. The Patriots are 18-4 at home in the playoffs all-time, including a 15-3 mark with Belichick as head coach and Brady as quarterback. New England averaged over 27 points per game this season; the 27 points Houston had last week tied its high-water mark for this season. New England – with rookie QB Jacoby Brissett making his first career start – shut out the Texans in New England in Week 3 this season. The Patriots have won five straight divisional round games, making an NFL-record five straight AFC championship game appearances.
Keep in mind: New England players have denied it, and Brady would as well, but don’t think for a minute they aren’t focused on exacting the best revenge they can for Brady’s suspension for deflate-gate (as well as the team’s punishment), which several in the organization have deemed a “witch hunt.” Getting to the Super Bowl, winning the Super Bowl, and having commissioner Roger Goodell hand Belichick and Brady the Lombardi Trophy – could there be anything more delicious?
As current Texans defensive tackle and former Patriots captain Vince Wilfork noted this week, the Giants were supposed to lose to New England in the 2007 season’s Super Bowl, and Clemson was supposed to lose to Alabama on Monday; Houston going to Gillette Stadium on Saturday night and beating the Patriots would be on par with those upsets.
Belichick and Brady have been part of both arguably the biggest upset win (Super Bowl XXXIV over the Rams) and biggest upset loss (Super Bowl XLII) we’ve seen, and if you think Belichick isn’t hammering that to his players this week, you haven’t been listening to the man over the past decade. Conversely, Houston coach Bill O’Brien is doing his best to convince his team that it can shock the NFL world.
Podcast: Your complete NFL playoff preview