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Top 5 AFC Threats to the Patriots: #1 Houston Texans

The Texans boasted the best defense in the AFC and is also best-equipped to slow down the Patriots offense.

In the 2016 playoffs, the Texans were able to slow down the Patriots offense and cause some frustration for Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels. The Texans in the 3rd quarter had only trailed 24-16 and that was after the Patriots got a touchdown pass on the 2nd drive of the game and a kickoff return TD by Dion Lewis. The Patriots pulled away at the end with a trio of interceptions against Brock Osweiler, who is now in Cleveland, to score the game’s final 10 points.

The biggest issue for the Texans was their offense and particularly QB play. They gave Osweiler a 4-year, $72M contract with more than half of it guaranteed, hoping to get an upgrade from Brian Hoyer, who had guided the team to the postseason the year before but turned in an awful performance against the Chiefs. That convinced the Texans to trade a lot of draft capital to the Browns not only to get rid of Osweiler, but also move up to the 12th pick to select Clemson QB Deshaun Watson. Of the 2017 QB Class, Watson is the most polished of the group, starting the last two seasons and splitting a pair of championship games against Alabama. It would be an upset if he’s not the starter in Week 1.

The Texans are also smart enough to not rely too much for Deshaun Watson or Tom Savage to move the ball. They have a decent to possibly underrated O-Line with solid players at all 5 spots. They invested a decent amount of money to sign Lamar Miller, who is a 3-down threat although not to the tune of Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson, who both can run routes like a receiver. Miller will get 20+ touches a game and you can pencil in 100 yards from scrimmage in more than half of them. The Patriots are also inclined to let Miller have all the short stuff on swing passes on passing plays then come up to make the tackle for a short gain, similar to what we saw in the two games last year.

Their receiving corps is mostly Deandre Hopkins and a bunch of bit players. They drafted Will Fuller last year to add some speed to the position, but he’s had issues with drops going back to his college days. Fuller dropped a TD against the Patriots in January because Osweiler threw the ball to the one spot Fuller couldn’t catch it (his hands). CJ Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin were the top TE targets for the Texans, who like to throw the ball there for short yardage gains and red zone situations. They can be dangerous if the Patriots let them convert 3rd and short situations. I expect the Patriots to play a lot of 2-deep looks with their safeties with help over the top for both Fuller’s speed and Hopkins being the Texans’ #1 threat.

The Texans defense is no joke, it is a Top 5 defense that can shut down opposing offenses. They have talent at every level, although losing their top CB, AJ Bouye, to a division rival certainly doesn’t help. They do have a very potent pass rush with Jadeveon Clowney wrecking the Patriots in January and look to have JJ Watt back this year after injuring his back and missing most of the year. The Patriots have been able to neutralize Watt, but never Clowney. The Texans took a page out of the Giants playbook, moving Clowney to a mug 3-technique rusher on passing downs and the Patriots struggled against that matchup early. I expect to see more of the same in the next matchup.

They have solid linebackers as well behind that pass rush. Brian Cushing was able to stay healthy for the first time in a while, a huge boost to their defense. Bernardrick McKinney had a strong sophomore season to give them a 2nd quality off the ball tackler next to Cushing. Their secondary took a hit when they lost Bouye, but they still have Jonathan Joseph out there along with Kareem Jackson, so they had some depth to withstand such a loss. However, there is one area where the Patriots hurt them and that was with the deep ball. When the Texans game plan took away the nickel and dime offense (short, rhythm passes), the Patriots made the adjustment to attack deep. If there is one area of weakness with the Texans defense it’s their safeties, which got exposed against the deep ball in January. It’s not an easily exploitable matchup because those passes require the QB to be able to sit in the pocket for at least 3-4 seconds to give the receiver time to get open downfield.

In a potential postseason matchup in Foxborough, the Texans are the team I least want to see. Bill O’Brien and his coaching staff are not going to outsmart themselves against Bill Belichick, which many other AFC coaches have done in the past. If the Texans have any improvement at the QB position and their special teams unit, they become the most dangerous team in the AFC to challenge the Patriots. It’s possible they could range anywhere from the 2nd to the 4th seed in the AFC since I have them winning the AFC South.