By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub
BOSTON (CBS) — Sixteen weeks. Or measured by another means, 14 games — what used to be a full season in the NFL until the league’s schedule was expanded in 1978.
That’s how much time has passed since the Patriots hosted the Houston Texans on the third Thursday of the 2016 season. With rookie Jacoby Brissett starting at quarterback in place of the injured Jimmy Garoppolo and the suspended Tom Brady, New England donned specially designed uniforms and color-rushed for 185 yards in a 27-0 white-washing of the Texans.
As they engage again this Saturday in the AFC divisional playoffs, much has changed between their last encounter and this next meeting.
Back on Sept. 22, the Patriots were slight underdogs before improving to 3-0. Today at 14-2, coming off a first-round postseason bye, they’re prohibitive favorites.
Brady is back and, despite dealing with a thigh injury during the second half of his dozen regular-season appearances, is coming off 28 touchdowns vs. two interceptions in 2016. And unlike the rookie Brissett, who had only a couple of days to prepare for his first career start against Houston, Brady will have access to a much thicker playbook and a wider array of weapons.
Granted, Rob Gronkowski is recovering from back surgery and no longer available. Then, he played only 14 snaps and was targeted with just one pass vs. the Texans. Since Gronk’s Week 3 season debut, Brady’s circle of trust expanded to include Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell; Dion Lewis bounded back from surgery rehab; and ex-Arizona Cardinal Michael Floyd impressed his new teammates with rugged play in the season finale.
Meanwhile, the defense that pitched the Pats’ first shutout since 2012, while keeping Houston off its side of midfield for all but two possessions, improved greatly in the final month over that first month of the campaign.
True, the since-traded Jamie Collins troubled Houston with 14 tackles and an interception in by far his best performance of the year. But he did it while Dont’a Hightower, Eric Rowe, Elandon Roberts and Rob Ninkovich sat that one out; Kyle Van Noy was still a Detroit Lion; and Trey Flowers had yet to truly flourish as the team’s best pass rusher.
Eventually, the Pats found the proper fit for the puzzle pieces of personnel. In their last six games, they took the ball away 14 times and finished 2016 as the league’s stingiest scoring defense (15.6 ppg).
As critics fairly point out, the five offenses faced in those contests are among the league’s bottom nine in yards per game. So is Houston, at No. 29, with a passing offense that produced only 198.5 yards on average. Overall, the Texans were outscored by 49 points in the regular season and their 17.4 ppg average is the lowest offensive output for a playoff team since the 2005 Bears (per ESPN Stats & Information).
Furthermore, the Pats won seven of their eight all-time meetings heretofore and own a 121-point advantage in the series. Yet none of those numbers will persuade the Texans, led by feisty head coach Bill O’Brien and fellow former Patriot Vince Wilfork, from showing up Saturday to and putting up a fight.
“Those two guys, they’ve been in playoff games, they’ve won playoff games, they’re going to give us their best shot,” New England safety Devin McCourty said on Tuesday. “They don’t care about the point spread and all of that stuff.
“I’m sure they know if they execute their game plan, they feel like they’re going to win, and it’s the same thing we do here. I’m sure both places are very similar right now on a Wednesday type of day, getting ready to go, having a good day of practice and trying to get ready for the biggest game of the year.”
McCourty is right about the spread ascribed by oddsmakers. It means nothing, and is of no use to O’Brien.
Or is it?
“What does that matter?” he said in a Monday press conference. “You know what I mean? What does that matter? The only thing that matters is what takes place in between the lines on Saturday night. No, I don’t really go too much to the Vegas betting line. I don’t think that would be really a good motivation tool this week.”
Perhaps not now. But it might come up by the weekend. What coach can resist resorting to the r-e-s-p-e-c-t card in a pregame speech?
Still, even if the Texans come into Gillette Stadium with a chip on their collective shoulder, they need to concentrate on every step they take in trying to carry it across the finish line.
“We’re going to have to have a great week of practice,” O’Brien said on a Tuesday conference call with Boston-area reporters. “We’re going to have to be very focused on every single play, limit mistakes, really communicate really well.”
In Saturday’s 27-14 Wild Card win over Oakland, Houston did that for the most part. What mistakes they made — such as three fumbles, all self-recovered — weren’t costly.
Quarterback Brock Osweiler avoided any turnovers after throwing 16 interceptions and losing his job during the season. Accorded the start due to Tom Savage’s recent concussion, Osweiler passed for one score and rushed for another. Meanwhile counterpart Connor Cook, making his first career start, was intercepted three times and sacked three times.
O’Brien and offensive coordinator George Godsey did their best to protect Osweiler. The Texans finished with 44 rushing attempts and 25 passes — just seven after halftime. At the same time, Osweiler showed flashes of his former self as a Denver Bronco beating the Patriots in Week 12 of 2015.
During a second-quarter flurry, he hit Will Fuller down the middle for 19 yards, before dropping a 38-yard lob into the sure hands of DeAndre Hopkins along the right sideline. Then with 80 seconds to spare in the first half, he stuck a short throw to Hopkins on a slant for a 20-7 lead.
Up to that point, the Texans had mostly tried to ride 1,000-yard rusher Lamar Miller, who finished with 31 carries, while relying on a group of tight ends that caught 116 passes during the season. Eight of Osweiler’s first 13 throws were directed toward tight ends Ryan Griffin and C.J. Fedorowicz.
“Their tight ends are making a lot more plays now than the first time we played them,” McCourty said of Houston’s development from September to January.
“That whole position has become a very important position for the Texans,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said during his Monday teleconference. “They’ve got good depth and good quality at that position.”
In their Week 3 encounter, Griffin caught a third (eight) of Houston’s 24 completions. He’s one guy who’s clearly gained Osweiler’s confidence.
The mostly beleaguered quarterback also has to feel a lot better about his blind side, now that veteran left tackle Duane Brown has Osweiler’s back. A leg injury forced Brown to miss the regular-season trip to Foxboro. On Saturday he helped hold Khalil Mack and company at bay. The Raiders had nary a sack.
“He’s a phenomenal player,” says Patriots’ defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “[Brown’s] athletic, he’s got good feet, he’s big, he’s long, he can handle power, he has really good hands.
“He has really kind of solidified that side over there to really handle that. You know, and they’re consistent up front, inside. Obviously all those guys have played and are playing well, and they’re smart players, so they’ve done a good job. But Brown, he has been excellent for them.”
Stabilizing the Texans’ line allows them to pick up their pace.
“I’ll say one of the other differences (is) there’s a little bit of tempo with the offense now,” Patricia said Monday, also on a conference call. “There’s going to be some at-the-line-of-scrimmage offense that they try to run and try to catch the defense in a particular look, which obviously gives you a lot of problems in pace and tempo and snap counts and all those different things too. So it’s a huge challenge.
“When you look at the offensive line or look at an offensive line, those are five guys that need to see and recognize and understand what a defense is trying to do all from the same set of eyes and that just takes time, and it just takes a while for those guys to work together to understand that. So having that consistency has really helped them.”
Consistency also characterizes Houston’s defense, despite the on-field absence of J.J. Watt. Though the camera still constantly finds him on the sideline, Watt hasn’t been seen in action since the loss at New England. Nonetheless, the Texans entered the playoffs with the NFL’s top-ranked total defense (301.3 yards per game) and second-ranked passing defense (201.6 ypg).
Linebackers Benardrick McKinney, who had 16 tackles in Week 3, and Whitney Mercilus, who had five sacks in his last two postseason appearances, were both voted Second Team All-Pro by the Associated Press. A third Texan honored as an All-Pro is the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 Draft, Jadeveon Clowney.
He set up the first score against Oakland by anticipating a screen, tipping the pass and at 270 pounds making a juggling interception.
“Clowney’s having a good year,” says Belichick. “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.”
“That’s why he was the No. 1 pick a couple years ago,” adds Wilfork, who was New England’s top pick in 2004 and is now a second-year Texan. “He’s showcasing. When guys play well, their confidence level rises. They actually see the bigger outlook on the effect they have on their teammates and coaches. Clowney is a Pro Bowler this year, and he deserves to be. I think the whole league understands why he was No. 1 now the past couple of years.”
On the subject of understanding, Wilfork gets what his current mates must overcome to beat his ex-team.
Despite the passage of time and regardless of prognostications, winning in Foxboro — especially in the playoffs — for anyone other than Brady and the home team goes against the odds.
“We understand we have to play probably the best game of the season to actually be able to hang with them,” Wilfork admits. “We all understand that.
“We have to put all the marbles we have in one basket and go up to Foxboro and play against a tough football team.”
Bob Socci is the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.