Barring a rare tie, the AFC will have one less undefeated team after Thursday night’s game between the Houston Texans and New England Patriots. Kickoff in Foxboro is set for 8:25pm EST on CBS.
While few people were surprised by New England’s hot start, it’s safe to say it would shock many if New England could pull off an upset as home underdogs with rookie Jacoby Brissett under center. As of 11:05am EST, the Westgate Superbook Line has the game listed as a “pick ’em,” but Houston was initially a 2.5-point favorite when the line opened last Sunday night.
First, let’s get the injury report out of the way. Jimmy Garoppolo, Tom Brady’s backup that led New England to two straight victories to start 2016, remains in doubt to start Thursday night. Wideout Julian Edelman serves as the emergency quarterback. Guard Jonathan Cooper and linebacker Dont’a Hightower enter the final hours before kickoff listed as questionable. Also listed as questionable is star tight end Rob Gronkowski. NFL.com insider Ian Rapoport tweeted early Thursday morning that Gronk will be a game-time decision, but that the perennial pro-bowler intends to make his 2016 debut.
In the Houston locker room, linebacker Brian Cushing (torn MCL), tackle Duane Brown (quad surgery), and Braxton Miller (strained hamstring) will all miss the game Thursday night. Expect Max Bullough and Akeem Dent to fill up the middle of the field in Cushing’s absence over the next six weeks or so.
While the Jets at Chiefs and Broncos at Bengals constitute intriguing contests, Texans at Patriots headlines the AFC schedule for a few key reasons. First, the matchup pits the Houston’s third-ranked defense against an offense led by a rookie quarterback. Expect the Patriots to pound the rock with LeGarrette Blount early in the game, and use a screen-heavy passing attack to limit the effectiveness of Houston’s stout pass rush. Blount had a monster game against the Dolphins in Week 2, racking up 123 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries. Blount, a bruising back not known for breakaway speed, will be forced to work hard for every yard he gains against a formidable rushing defense.
With JJ Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and Jadaveon Clowney leading off the edge, the Patriots will be forced to avoid pressure by getting the ball out of Brissett’s hand quickly. Expect the Patriots to work heavily on one side of the field, and throw a lot of passes to open receivers with room to run. I know that sounds like the game plan for every team every week, but this plan won’t include many 50-50 lob passes against man coverage. The Patriots will be very conservative and setup Brissett for success.
The Patriots have a solid – but not great – defense. Malcom Butler and Logan Ryan are steady corners on the outside, but DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller pose matchup problems for most corners in the NFL. Hopkins has top tier playmaking ability, and is one of the most consistent receivers in the league. Fuller, the rookie first-round pick out of Notre Dame, burst onto the scene and leads the Texans in receiving yards through two weeks. In Week 1 against the Bears he tallied 107 yards, and nearly duplicated his performance against the Chiefs in Week 2 with 104 yards.
Quarterback Brock Osweiler is better than league average, but does not have the ability to carry the offense. He still struggles with sound decision-making and is prone to throw some interceptions. In his career, he’s thrown just 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions. This season, he’s thrown three of each. Expect the Texans to give the Patriots a heavy dose of Lamar Miller and mix in some deep balls to Hopkins and Fuller down the sideline. Miller trails only Steelers’ running back DeAngelo Williams in rushing attempts, and ranks fifth in rushing yards so far. After posting eight rushing touchdowns in each of the past two seasons with Miami, Miller has yet to find the end zone with Houston in 2016.
I’m not saying the winner of this game should be considered the favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. These teams, like several others, are dealing with critical injuries and are not clicking on all cylinders despite 2-0 records. What I am saying is the Patriots and Texans are on my short list of AFC contenders, and that’s why this game is must-see TV on Thursday night.
Stats courtesy of ESPN.com