There aren't many souls in the football landscape willing to take a chance on the Houston Texans vs the New England Patriots on Sunday. I'm going to go against the grain and make a case for the Texans, so let's take a closer look at this juicy Divisional round match-up.
Before the Wild Card round, Vegas put up -7.5 in favor of the Patriots for their theoretical match-up with the Texans. After reviewing everything, this was a very accurate point spread for this game. Yet, after the weekend games, the line re-opened at -9.5. There hasn't been a lot of movement during the week as it still hovers around the -9 to -10 range (odds from SBRforum). Books know if they drop it below -9 they'll get a ton of teaser action on the Patriots.
Between -7.5 and -9.5 there aren't any "key numbers", but once you hit -10 you have to begin looking at the underdog. With a 2.5 point inflation, I'm more than prepared to ride the Texans and take my chances.
Blood in the Water?
Yes, the Texans got slaughtered in their last trip to Foxboro. It can't be good for the collective psyche that Houston have dominated teams all season, but got their butts whipped against the Packers and Patriots.
The problem for Houston hasn't been how their roster stacks up on paper though. From a numbers standpoint, there's no reason to think the Texans can't hang in this game. In fact, they should be able to win it straight up.
The issue for them so far has been two-fold. First, losing Cushing continues to hurt this team. He was a crucial anchor in the middle of the field that just can't be replaced. Dobbins was decent, and even good at times, but even he's injured for this game. These injuries give teams two new options to attack this Texans defense.
The other big issue has been the approach taken by Wade Philips. He deserves a lot of credit for what he's done with this defense over the past two seasons, but unless he figures out a scheme to slow down a spread offense led by an elite QB, he can forget about getting this team to the promised land.
Don't expect to see the same formations again this weekend in the rematch. It's hard enough stopping the lethal two-tight end set Patriots offense as it is, but you can't do the same thing and hope for a different result. The game plan simply didn't work on any level.
Yet, even if Wade does come up with something that clicks, Brady can easily turn it all upside down with a hurry-up offense that would keep Houston off-balance.
The question is how do you disrupt this offense? Three of the four TDs in the last game came against blitzes. Dropping back in zone didn't work either.
Whatever approach the Texans take, they'll need to execute at a high level and not fold in those "make-or-break" moments. The big key will be winning the one-on-one match-ups, regardless of formation.
Speaking of Unstoppable...
New England have an obvious passing advantage with Brady vs Schaub, but their running game is also greatly underappreciated. When you look at the advanced metrics for this offense, you'll see top ranks across the board. That covers everything including QB efficiency, rushing/passing, pass protection, drive success rate, 3rd down/red zone efficiency, and turnover differential.
Welker, Gronk, Hernandez, Ridley...who do you take away? Where do you leave the isolated match-ups?
Even if Houston find a way to disrupt one area, they have so many other things to worry about - and they must maintain their focus/discipline for an entire 60 minutes in a very tough road environment.
The 3rd Wheel
Something that can turn a game in the playoffs is special teams. If the Texans score a FG/TD, it can all be for nothing if they give up a long kick return. A stalled drive can result in a lethal punt return. A nice drive can be killed by a missed kick.
You get the idea. The Houston special teams has been a big liability for most of the season. At times they were showing signs of improvement, but it was more window dressing than anything. The Patriots aren't world-class in this area, but they are above average with their special teams units.
The troubling thing for the Texans is the fact that this area of the game could create an avalanche of momentum against them at any point.
Belichick isn't about to take his foot off the pedal if his team gets a lead in this game, but let's not get crazy here. The sky isn't falling just yet.
The Texans are more than capable of being competitive in this game. It's almost an advantage that they got to face New England so recently to find out what they need to fix in order to have a chance this time around.
Aside from special teams, there's not an area on the field on either side of the ball that screams "huge mismatch".
The obvious key for Houston will be controlling the line of scrimmage, remaining poised, and keeping this game within a score or two. They are not built to come back from a big deficit.
Arian Foster needs to be the main man on offense to maximize Schaub's options in the air. It's really that straight-forward. Houston is best when they are dictating on both sides of the ball. On Sunday, they'll need to succeed on one side of the action at the very least.
I picked the Texans to win the Super Bowl at the start of the season. After blowing home field advantage, the prospects of that happening have dwindled. They also have to go into Foxboro and stop an offense that very few teams have figured out how to stop. When you combine Belichick, Brady, and a brilliant two-tight end set, it's just a matter of time before they break you down.
With all that said, this game should not be a double-digit spread. Even with their metrics and home field advantage, the highest I'd put this line at is -7.5. People are talking like the Texans are nothing more than a speedbump on the road to Patriots glory.
I might be one of the last people who still believe in Houston, but I'm prepared to go down with the ship this season. If they execute how they've done for most of the year and their studs play like studs, they will cover this spread. From a value perspective, give me +10 and I'll take that every time.
NFL Pick: HOU +10.