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Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots Division Round match-up: X-Factors

Which players on both the Patriots and Texans figure to play the biggest role in determining the game’s outcome?

As the Patriots prepare for the Houston Texans, a game many expect the Patriots to not only win, but blow out the Texans. The two teams will play Saturday night at Gillette Stadium, where weather will be a factor as the forecast for the game will be a game time temperature in the 20s along with a significant chance of minor snow showers and gusting winds. The weather shouldn’t be an issue for the Patriots as they’ll be the home team. While the Patriots were able to defeat the Texans 27-0 back in Week 3, the Patriots do need to execute their assignments in order to beat the Texans.

These players are the six that will have a significant impact on the game, from a group of players not already mentioned as a top Texans threat or will be responsible for shutting down said threat.

Patriots Offense: LT Nate Solder

The Patriots will need to be able to shut down Jadeveon Clowney, which means Solder will have to play a strong game. The Patriots have gotten a strong season from Solder, a story that hasn’t been talked about enough behind the Patriots other bookend blocker. Clowney is the Texans best defensive player, nearly single-handedly ruining the Raiders game plan on Saturday. The best way for the Patriots to do is to be able to run the ball, especially in Clowney’s direction like in Week 3, while being able to execute cut-blocks on screens. Solder should be a significant step up from Menelik Watson on the edge as Solder handles power rushers very well.

Patriots Defense: DT Alan Branch

The Patriots have to be able to control the line of scrimmage on the defensive side of the ball, especially in the running game. Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, and Vince Valentine have to be able to clog up running lanes up the middle so the LBs can roam freely and make the stops. The Texans will want to run the ball effectively to maximize the amount of time they’re on the field and minimize the amount of time that Tom Brady is on the field. At the same time, they don’t want to expose Brock Osweiler into obvious passing situations where the Patriots can slide Trey Flowers into favorable matchups against guards and centers and where Osweiler needs to make a downfield throw into tight coverage. The Patriots were able to limit Miller’s output and effectively erase his impact on the game in Week 3.

Patriots Special Teams: Jonathan Jones

The Patriots will also need to force long fields for the Houston Texans after kickoffs and punts. That means that tackling needs to be good and the cover units be able to cover the kicks. Jonathan Jones and Matthew Slater will need to be able to pressure the Texans return men into calling fair catches inside the 20. The idea will be to force the Texans to climb the hill and string together 10+ play drives to get points. With Brock Osweiler at QB, chances are the Texans will struggle to go that many plays without a turnover or punt happening first. The Texans are one of the worst teams in generating field position for their offense. If the Patriots are able to decisively win the field position game like they did in Week 3, chances are it will be a significant blowout.

Texans Offense: WR Will Fuller

Deandre Hopkins has been getting all the attention, but the Texans had big hopes for Will Fuller when they drafted him out of Notre Dame in the first round. Fuller started off the season well, but has been a non-factor for them since Week 2. The Patriots will be sending help to whoever is covering DeAndre Hopkins, which could mean Fuller in single coverage against Eric Rowe or Malcolm Butler on the boundary. If the Patriots are able to shut down the Texans running game, then the Patriots will also have a safety for Fuller as well. TE CJ Fiedorowicz and RB Lamar Miller are going to be the Texans top underneath threats for 5-7 yard plays. What the Patriots can ill-afford is Osweiler connecting on a deep ball to Fuller, which would open up more of their passing game.

Texans Defense: ED Whitney Mercilus

The Texans other bookend rusher is also very good, as he’ll line up against the Patriots top lineman in Marcus Cannon. Cannon has done a good job of neutralizing edge rushers since Week 3, holding top edge rushers like Von Miller, Cameron Wake, Jerry Hughes, and Cliff Avril out of the sack column. Marcus Cannon will need to keep up the performance to keep Brady upright. AJ Bouye is another player who could have gotten the designation, but I don’t think the Patriots will use a lot of vertical routes, but rather crossing routes to attack the Texans underneath.

Texans Special Teams: Tyler Ervin

Ervin did play the role of X-Factor in Week 3 against his own team as he had two fumbles that set up the Patriots inside the Texans 25 yard line. The Patriots put up 14 points off those fumbles in that game. Last week, he had a bad muff that was picked up by his teammate on a game-saving play perhaps. When Ervin isn’t struggling with ball security, he is a dangerous return man, similar to Cyrus Jones on the Patriots. It will be interesting to see if he’s even active for the game as the last thing the Texans want is another Special Teams turnover to the Patriots.