By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Most recent Patriots-Texans “games” have been fairly predictable in terms of how Tom Brady and the offense would handle the guys on the other side for Houston. Professional try-hard J.J. Watt would get all the hype leading into the game, only for Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels to effectively neutralize him – in some cases, wipe him out of the game entirely.
That was the result in the teams’ last matchup in Week 3. To be fair, Watt was trying to play through an injury – but it’s not like the Patriots’ 27-0 win was much different from most of their other games, quarterbacks notwithstanding. Most of the time, the Patriots have shut down the Texans’ lone game-changer on defense and Brady has picked everyone else apart.
There’s little reason to think the Texans have any chance of upsetting the Patriots in Saturday’s AFC Divisional Playoff at Gillette Stadium, especially with Watt still shelved as he recovers from back surgery. But if they are to make this game somewhat interesting (or even mildly entertaining) for more than a few minutes, they will need new defensive game-changer Jadeveon Clowney to be a little less invisible.
Clowney has emerged as the star he’s been expected to become since entering the league as the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. He earned AP All-Pro Second Team honors, listed alongside other elite edge rushers like Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon. He finished the regular season with an 87.2 grade on Pro Football Focus, good for eighth among all edge defenders in the NFL. He recorded one of the more athletic plays you’ll see all season from a defensive lineman with an interception against the Raiders’ Connor Cook in Saturday’s AFC Wild Card game in Houston.
All the makings for the Patriots to turn him into a ghost. The same kind of reverse-exorcism that has morphed Watt from a freakish football player into a free-roaming vaporous apparition.
Obviously, there’s a good chance the Patriots devote the bulk of their protections up front to limiting Clowney and largely taking him out of the game – but that doesn’t make him any less of an eye-popping talent. But Belichick knows that he has his hands full with Clowney on Saturday.
“Clowney’s having a good year,” Belichick deadpanned during his Monday conference call. “He’s been very productive; long, very athletic, good pass rusher, good run player, good tackler, strip sacks, so he’s got really good awareness. The interception he made on the screen last week against Oakland was not only a very athletic play, but a very instinctive play for him to recognize that and get out there. Of course, as I said, with his length he’s a tough guy to throw around.”
That’s not much different from Belichick’s usual boilerplate responses to questions about specific players. He went on to compliment the rest of the Texans defense. But it’s clear to Belichick and people with eyes that Clowney is the one guy whom the Patriots will absolutely, positively need to slow down in order to keep Brady upright and exploit mismatches in other areas of the Texans defense.
If anyone can give Brady (more specifically, Nate Solder) problems on Saturday, it’s Clowney. If Houston somehow pulls off the improbable – heck, if they keep the thing within 20 points – Clowney will be a big reason why.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.