BOSTON (CBS) — Did you already break out your can opener in preparation for Saturday’s playoff game at Gillette?
The old “Tomato can” narrative fits well into this week’s Patriots-Texans showdown, as New England heads into this one favored by as many as 16 points. There isn’t much love being tossed around in Houston’s direction, not after they dispatched the Oakland Raiders and their third-string QB, 27-14, on Wild Card weekend. Instead, New England fans are left trying to get excited for another Divisional Round dismantling of a less-talented NFL team by the Patriots.
The Patriots should have little issue with the Texans, en route to another AFC Championship game appearance. They’re simply a better team in all phases, facing a less-than-impressive team on their home field. It’s the path they earned by claiming the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
And if the Texans couldn’t beat rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett on a short week, back in September, they have no shot against Tom Brady in the playoffs.
But the Texans aren’t going to just roll over come Saturday night. Their defense was one of the best in the league, allowed just 301.3 yards per game — tops in the NFL. Their secondary finished second in the NFL, allowing just 202 yards per game, holding opposing quarterbacks to an 84.3 rating, which was good for seventh.
And while Brock Osweiler impressed no one after inking a four-year, $72-million deal over the offseason, he has a few weapons that could make the Patriots sweat on a chilly New England evening.
Here are five Texans that will likely give the Patriots some problems on Saturday — they’ll just do so in a losing effort:
You could argue that most of the Texans forgot to show up for Thursday Night Football back in Week 3, but this guy was everywhere on the field. McKinney had 16 combined tackles for the game, and recorded Houston’s only sack on Brissett.
Bill Belichick praised McKinney’s versatility earlier this week, saying the linebacker can play inside, outside, off the line and in coverage. He noted that at 6-foot-4, McKinney can make a lot of plays with just his length.
“The guy is a real good football player that does a lot for their defense, plays a lot of positions and is, again, does so many things well. It’s very unusual to find a player with his skills that can do so many things in the running game, in the passing game, on the line, off the line,” said Belichick. “He’s an excellent player, one of the best players we’ve played against all year.”
McKinney was one of the reasons the Texans were only down 10-0 at halftime back on September 22, and a giant reason the Texans defense had such a good year.
If the Texans want any chance at pulling off an upset on Saturday, they’ll need their defensive front to be as disruptive as ever. Jadeveon Clowney is getting a whole lot of attention after having a solid game against the Raiders, and will give Nate Solder all he can handle on Saturday. But the combined powers of McKinney and Whitney Mercilus should be New England’s big concern.
Mercilus had 7.5 sacks during the regular season, and got to Connor Cook twice last Saturday in Houston. He’ll be a big part of any pressure the Texans can get on Brady on Saturday.
The Texans safety had a great end to the regular season, earning the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Month award in December after recording 22 total tackles and four interceptions.
Demps had six picks throughout the season, second in the NFL and first among safeties. He is day-to-day after suffering a hamstring injury against Oakland, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll won’t be out there on Saturday trying to pick off Brady.
Osweiler isn’t good, so the rest of the Houston offense has to pick up the slack. Lamar Miller did quite a bit of that during the regular season.
The back rushed for 1,073 yards and five touchdowns during the regular season, adding another 188 yards and a touchdown off 31 receptions. He’s capable of breaking a big run, too, accumulating seven 20+ yard runs, good for sixth in the league.
Miller ran for 73 yards and scored Houston’s first touchdown against Oakland last week, but averaged just 2.4 yards per carry in the playoff win. Back in Week 3 in New England, he picked up 80 yards on 21 carries, with another 27 yards on four receptions.
If the Patriots get up big, then Miller likely won’t see much action. But if the Texans offense can get going early, their running back will be a key factor.
Logan Ryan did a great job on Hopkins back in Week 3, holding him to just four catches for 56 yards on eight targets. That led to a frustrating evening for Osweiler, who finished 24-for-41 for 196 yards and an interception.
Hopkins found the end zone just four times during the regular season, and he finished with just 78 receptions after hauling in 111 passes last season. But he came on strong at the end of the regular season, with 18 receptions in the final three games, and Bill Belichick knows that Hopkins is a threat for a big play — as long as his quarterback can get the ball in his vicinity.
“I would say the big thing for him is his hands and his catch radius. Kind of, even when he’s covered, he’s not covered,” Belichick said of Hopkins on Tuesday. “He can reach and catch the ball somewhere where the defender can’t quite get it if it’s thrown there. He’s a tough guy to bring down after the catch. He’s got good size. He’s been targeted a lot on third down as much as any receiver in the league. He’s had a lot of third down production, so I think that pretty much says it all right there. He keeps possession of the ball. The guy gets more balls thrown to him than just about anybody in the league and catches more than just about anybody in the league. I would say that kind of defines a go-to player, whether it be for the Texans or really league-wide.”
Hopkins had 67 yards on five catches and a touchdown against the Raiders. The Patriots will need another stellar effort from Ryan and the New England defensive backs to keep him in check again on Saturday.