The Houston Texans have become a juggernaut this season, but they face a crucial test on Monday night when they visit the New England Patriots. Can the new kids on the block hang with a perennial AFC power, or will the Pats prove they're still the class of the conference? The outcome of this game will have major implications in the race for home-field advantage on the AFC side.
Here are three key questions heading into this stellar matchup:
1) Can the Patriots stop the Texans' stretch-bootleg combination?
The Texans' offense is unquestionably one of the most difficult to defend in the NFL. Coach Gary Kubiak's balanced approach keeps opponents from focusing on stopping either the run or the pass. The Texans rank sixth in rushing offense and 10th in passing yards while sporting a nearly 50:50 run-pass ratio through 12 games. That remarkable production is jaw-dropping when one considers that the Texans' playbook is built upon a simple -- yet effective -- stretch-bootleg play combination.
The offensive line will step in unison in the direction of the play call, latching onto any defenders in their assigned tracks in an attempt to create movement at the line of scrimmage. Texans running back Arian Foster will head in that direction, aiming for the outside foot of the play-side offensive tackle. When Foster reaches the point of attack, he will either bounce (take the ball around the corner), bang (attack a downhill crease) or bend (cut back against the pursuit of the defense) to pick up positive yards. Quarterback Matt Schaub will execute a bootleg fake in the opposite direction, to prevent the backside defensive end and/or linebacker from pursuing down the line. In addition, the Texans will routinely run a series of bootleg passes, in an effort to take advantage of aggressive linebackers intent on flowing to Foster to stop the run. When executed properly, the Texans' deadly play combination produces big gains, plenty of points and much frustration on the part of defenders.
To combat that tactic, the Patriots must get penetration on the front side while maintaining discipline and gap integrity on the backside. The defensive tackle and defensive end to the side of the call must blow through the upfield shoulder of the offensive lineman attempting to seal the edges, and force Foster to stutter-step or stop his feet while looking for a lane. The defensive linemen and linebackers on the backside, meanwhile, must avoid chop blocks so they can stay on their feet, run to the ball and shut down Foster's cutback lanes. In addition, the players in the secondary must read their keys and prevent Texans receivers Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter and tight end Owen Daniels from running past them on vertical routes following Schaub's play fakes. If the Patriots can eliminate the big plays on the ground or in the air, they can limit the Texans to field goals instead of touchdowns in the red zone.
2) How will Houston attack Tom Brady?
The Patriots' offense operates with machine-like precision, thanks to the extraordinary play of Brady. The three-time Super Bowl champion continues to perform at an MVP level. Few opponents have been able to disrupt his timing and rhythm in the pocket; Brady has connected on 64.8 percent of his passes, throwing for 25 touchdowns against just four interceptions. Most importantly, he has amassed seven 300-yard games while distributing the ball efficiently to Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd out of a variety of spread and empty formations.
To have any chance of slowing down Brady, the Texans must come up with a plan to take away Brady's primary target and force him to hold on to the ball longer in the pocket. This can be accomplished in part by instructing the corners to press the Patriots' receivers at the line of scrimmage, forcing them to fight through physical jams to get open. In addition, the Texans' defensive linemen must get their hands up, so that they can alter Brady's release point or generate tips and deflections. Texans defender J.J. Watt has harassed quarterbacks throughout the season with his impeccable timing and anticipation at the line; to knock Brady off-kilter, Watt will need to be at the top of his game.
The Texans also must mount a consistent pass rush, so that they can get bodies around Brady in the pocket. Brady has performed well this season, but he will get rattled when defenses get to him early. Facing constant harassment, Brady might hurry his throws from the pocket or duck his head and hit the dirt when he senses defenders nearby. If the Texans can frustrate Brady with their bullying tactics, they will certainly have a great chance at winning a tough game on the road.
3) Are the Texans ready to wear the crown?
The Texans boast the best record in the league, but the jury is still out when it comes to their Super Bowl chances, despite convincing wins over the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens. Although those victories validated Houston's arrival as an AFC heavyweight, naysayers cite the Texans' dismal performance against the Green Bay Packers in Week 6 as proof that they are not ready to wear the crown. The cynics point to the Texans' lackluster defensive play of late and wonder if the team can resume performing at a high level heading into the postseason.
The Patriots represent the ultimate measuring stick in the AFC. This game has serious implications with regard to the psyches of the Texans and others heading into the postseason. If Houston can win in convincing fashion, the Texans will enter the tournament with victories against every viable title contender in the conference under their belt; the confidence that would give them could push them over the top. However, a loss to the Patriots could spark doubt in the Texans' minds, piercing the aura of invincibility that has been created by their impressive record.
It's hard to bet against Tom Brady and the Patriots at home. New England has a championship pedigree and is beginning to round into postseason form. While the Texans certainly represent the toughest challenge New England will have faced in over a month, I believe Bill Belichick has circled this game on the calendar as a must-win, and he will unveil all of his tricks on Monday night. This is sure to be a four-quarter affair, but ultimately, I have to give the nod to Brady and Company.