This is a game I've been looking forward to for months. I've picked the Texans quite a bit this season. Despite being one of the best teams in the NFL, they continue to cover point spreads as a favorite. That mettle will be put to the test this week when they travel for a tough road game.
The look-ahead line had the Patriots favored by -5. After the weekend they re-opened them at -4.5. Fast forward to today and we've seen somewhat of a surprising move on New England. Right now the line sits at -5.5 (odds from SBRforum).
This game is receiving a lot of strong opinions. Patriots backers are convinced they are not only going to win and cover, but win convincingly. Houston backers think there's no way the Patriots should've been favored by more than a field goal and will happily take the value. I obviously fall in the latter category.
So what does it all mean? My take is pretty simple. When you consider what the current NFL landscape is like, it doesn't make much sense to favor New England by this much. Could they win easily? Sure. They have the offense to do it and the benefit of playing at home.
What's more likely though, is a hard fought game between two teams that are clear Super Bowl contenders. In this situation, having more than a field goal on the spread is gravy.
X's and O's
So where do the advantages lie in this match-up?
Not a lot stands out on paper. Brady is obviously a beast and could tear apart any defense, regardless how they defend him. Even without Gronk and Edelman, he can pick schemes apart with Welker, Hernandez, or any other guy with a name on his jersey. They also have great balance with Ridley this season, which is just flat out scary to think about. In fact, the Patriots rank near the very top in run efficiency.
How will the Texans approach this game? I don't have a crystal ball, but I truth that Phillips will do his best to attack an O-line that is dealing with depth issues. New England gave up four sacks last week and face an even tougher front this week. First round pick Whitney Marcilus stepped in for an injured Reed and put up two sacks against the Titans. People might brush that aside because the Titans are garbage, but they have one of the better pass protections in the NFL.
On the back end, things get really interesting for both clubs. Joseph is expected to play, which is huge news since there's no one on the Texans roster that can come close to replacing him. McCain's loss hurts because he was a good slot cover corner that nobody ever really talked about. They signed Routt off the scrap heap, which may or may not be a good thing. At worst he brings experience, but I expect Brady to target him early and often. It would also be a nice boost if Alan Ball can get healthy enough to play, but his status is up in the air.
For the Patriots, it was great that they acquired Aqib Talib, but he's not going to magically turn it around by himself. What's far more important is whether or not they can continue to get pressure up front. The Texans have one of the better O-lines in the NFL and it's hard to decipher whether they are passing or running a full second or two after the snap. Due to this, I anticipate some big plays in the play-action situations. The Patriots secondary has been burned on this repeatedly this season and could get exposed again on Monday.
As mentioned, the Patriots run game is coming of age. The important thing for Houston is that Dobbins is healthy and securing the middle. Losing Cushing was really bad for this unit, but without him and Dobbins, things get dicey. We all saw what Detroit did to them when Joseph and Dobbins were not in the game.
On the flip side, the Patriots will have to contend with the likes of Foster, Tate, and now Forsett. That might sound funny, but Forsett has come in and given them a legitimate option when Foster is out. Tate got eased back into the lineup last week, but look for his involvement to increase this week.
A closer look reveals no secrets. The Texans have a big opportunity to move the ball in the air. New England have been pretty good vs the run, but when push comes to show they generally fold. The Pats defense simply isn't very good in the make-or-break moments. They don't disrupt drives on a consistent basis, can't get off the field on third down, and give up too many touchdowns in the red zone.
On the flip side, the Texans defense stacks up well in every meaningful category. The caveat is Tom Brady. We all remember what Rodgers did to Houston when he was on fire. If Brady comes out possessed, there's no telling how many points they put up. However, that's not something I can waste time worrying about. I have to trust what I've seen all year and go with the percentages.
It wasn't too long ago that I would say the Patriots had a huge advantage on special teams, but this is an area the Texans have slowly improved in over the last month. In fact, it could be Gostowski that is under the microscope. He's missed a field goal in three straight games and six on the season. If this game is close near the end, I know I wouldn't want my money on him right now.
The Texans are 6-0 on the road straight up, and 4-2 ATS. The Patriots are 4-1 straight up at home, but only 2-3 ATS.
My numbers say that the true line should've been -3 to start. Perhaps the Patriots blow them off the field on Sunday, but that would surprise me. I think Houston made a nice prime-time statement when they went into Chicago and came away with a win - especially after the fiasco vs the Packers earlier in the year. Take advantage of the late line movement and go with the road team. I think they'll be ready for the challenge.
NFL Pick: Houston Texans.