Entering Wild Card weekend, there wasn't an unfavorable scenario possible for the Patriots. Either the Oakland Raiders, Houston Texans or Miami Dolphins would head to Foxboro next Saturday, all of whom were in the midst of quarterback issues and had incredibly inconsistent season. Yet as the Patriots have seen all too often, they still managed to pick the best possible scenario.
Connor Cook and Oakland wouldn't have put up a realistic fight against the Patriots, but the Raiders are an excellent turnover differential team with a penchant for dirty play. The same Miami team that got lambasted at home in Week 17 would've faced New England in Foxboro, and division rivals are never to be taken lightly, especially in the aftermath of an embarrassing defeat (2010 New York Jets).
Instead, it will be the Texans heading to Foxboro, the very same team that lost 27-0 in Week 3 to Jacoby Brissett (and without Brady, Gronkowski and Hightower), and will be without their best player in J.J. Watt. A dome team forced into the harsh winter conditions of January in New England, in which the Patriots simply thrive. The opening betting line for the game favors the Patriots by 16 points, and that's still a line they'll likely easily cover.
Let's take a look at some of the key matchups:
Offensive X-Factor: Nate Solder (against Jadeveon Clowney)
Clowney is the most fearsome player on the Texans, which means the Patriots will gameplan around him. While Marcus Cannon has typically garnered the attention for his play against some of the league's premier pass-rushers, it will be Solder drawing the focus this time around. Expect an early dose of running plays to mitigate Clowney's pass rushing skills, and some quick passing plays when Brady does air it out. If the Patriots can get out to a 14 or even 21-point lead before the half, their clock-burning offense that has worked so well this season will get its chance, completely playing out of the Texans' passing defense strength.
Defensive X-Factor: Malcolm Butler (against DeAndre Hopkins)
Defensively, the Patriots do an excellent job of locking down their opponents' most explosive wide receiver, which isn't always their most talented one. Fortunately, both titles for the Texans belong to Hopkins, who was held to 4 catches and 56 yards in Week 3. Not a complete "lockdown", but certainly keeping in check one of the game's best receivers. The defense was still coming into its own, still struggling to force turnovers at the time, and yet their Cover 2 scheme did its job. Butler, who has had some shaky games but has easily been a top-5 corner this season, will get another big chance to earn his new contract this offseason by guarding Hopkins. Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, who was held to one target and zero catches, has emerged as perhaps Osweiler's second-favorite target and will thus command further attention.
New England wins if: Everyone just does their job. The offensive line manhandles Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, giving Brady time in the pocket. LeGarrette Blount, who went for 24 carries, 105 yards (4.4 YPC) and 2 TDs, continues to rip off chunks of yards each carry. Dion Lewis serves as a nice change-of-pace back, making some big runs himself. The defense generates good pressure on Osweiler, while the secondary disguises their coverage and forces him to make some untimely throws. Gostkowski drills his attempts and the special teams continuously forces the Texans to drive the length of the field. (If they can execute this at even 75 percent, this game will be over by the 4th quarter.)
Houston wins if: Osweiler stands in the pocket and delivers strikes to his receivers. Lamar Miller, who was decent against the Patriots in that earlier game, outplays Blount and forces more run-heavy looks from the Patriots defense. Hopkins gets separation on Butler and Will Fuller breaks out and capitalizes his advantage from the slot. The defense somehow baffles Brady, making sure he throws off his back foot (1st quarter of the Denver game) while corners A.J. Bouye and Jonathan Joseph have the games of their lives. Martellus Bennett doesn't show up and forces Matt Lengel to be the tight end presence down the seam. The Texans force at least 2 turnovers, and a few special teams mistakes go in their favor this time. (Unlike New England, there's basically no leeway here; this is what it'll take for a Texans victory.)
Bottom Line: Mike Reiss wrote an excellent piece about how this is a completely different Patriots team from the one we saw in Week 3, and he's right. On the other side, the Texans have regressed talent-wise from that Week 3 performance (no Watt). Houston needs to hope that Brissett's mobility somehow threw them off from a phenomenal gameplan, and that Osweiler's handful of $72 million-worthy throws from Saturday travel with him to Gillette for this Saturday.
Prediction: Patriots 34, Texans 10. There's going to be a huge play from the Patriots' offense early to fire up the crowd (I'm thinking either a 60-yard TD run for Blount, or a 60-yard TD catch for Hogan), and it's all downhill from there for the Texans. Lamar Miller's TD run midway through the 4th quarter makes the Texans' offense look a little less pathetic in the boxscore.