It's January, which around New England means it's finally football season. Fresh off of their first round bye, the Patriots will host the Houston Texans on Saturday (8:15 p.m., CBS) in the divisional round.
It's a record seventh straight year that the Patriots will host a divisional game, as they finished with the No. 1 seed in the AFC for the sixth time since the new format was established in 1990 - also the most of any NFL team. If they can beat the Texans, they'll go to their sixth straight AFC Championship Game, which - you guessed it - would be an NFL record, breaking a tie with the Oakland Raiders (1973-1977).
According to Vegas, the Patriots should cruise to that game. They are a 16-point favorite over the Texans, which would be the fourth-largest point spread in NFL playoff history if it stands. But the Patriots have been on both ends of the point-spread spectrum, beating the St. Louis Rams as 14-point underdogs in Super Bowl XXXVI and losing to the New York Giants as 12-point favorites in Super Bowl XLII.
As we all know, anything can happen in the postseason. The Texans, while lacking the talent that New England possesses, aren't going to let a large point spread keep them from taking the field Saturday night.
"We gave ourselves a shot, we gave ourselves a chance to play for the big dance," former Patriots defensive lineman and current Texan Vince Wilfork told reporters. "We’re in that spot. It's going to have no bearing on how we’ll go up there and how we feel because of what someone else said. We’re going to go in and play our tails off.”
No team allows less yards than the Texans (301.3 per game), which is why they've made it this far. The Patriots offense will be tested in that sense. But c'mon, regardless of the stats, the real test is going to be on the Texans. Yes, Tom Brady has lost a couple big games in his career - but he's won a heck of a lot more of them. There are two full pages of Brady playoff notes in this week's Patriots game release. The accolades are endless, but a few stick out. Brady is the all-time postseason leader in: touchdown passes (56), passing yards (7,957), completions (738), most 300-yard games (10), and perhaps most importantly wins (22). He's more fresh than usual after his suspension-shortened 12-game season, and still put up MVP numbers at age 39. It's hard to believe the Texans are going to stop him. After all, they couldn't stop Jacoby Brissett.
J.J. Watt is one of the hardest-working NFL defensive linemen in the NFL. Just ask him. And that hard work has turned him into a monster. Brady and the Patriots do not have to worry about him though, as he's out for the season after back surgery. But there's a player who has emerged out of Houston that will instill just as much fear these days: Jadeveon Clowney. The 6-foot-5, 270 pound Clowney was taken with the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, and though it's taken a few seasons to reach that potential, it's safe to say he's now there.
"He’s obviously got all of the size, but the speed, the quickness, and how hard he is playing,” Brady told reporters. “He’s chasing guys down from behind and making plays. The plays last week were huge in the wild card game; the interception, the tipped balls.”
The Brocketship (Brock Osweiler) is ready for liftoff, but the Texans might be smart to keep things grounded. Lamar Miller carried the ball 31 times last week for the Texans, though only rushing for 73 yards and a touchdown. Still, he's a 1,000-yard rusher this season and Osweiler is shaky at best - just look at the dip in DeAndre Hopkins' numbers this season (1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2015, 954 yards and four touchdowns in 2016). If the Patriots jump out to a big lead, they'll force the Texans into more throws. But if the Texans D shows up, expect plenty of carries from Miller. Unfortunately for the Texans, the Patriots allow just 88.6 rushing yards per game, third-lowest this season.