Why everyone should be taking Texans seriously Saturday vs. Patriots

Mike Petraglia
January 09, 2017 - 3:12 pm

Jadeveon Clowney was all over Raiders rookie quarterback Connor Cook Saturday in the playoffs. (Troy Toarmina/USA Today Sports)

Don't be fooled. Vegas is touting the Patriots as one of the biggest playoff favorites in the Super Bowl era. Every prognosticator is calling for the Patriots to just show up Saturday night and steamroll Bill O'Brien's bunch. This is the start of the "easiest path" to the Super Bowl the Patriots have ever had, say most of the pundits.

If you think it's going to be easy this Saturday night at Gillette Stadium, you may be in for a very rude awakening. 

The Houston Texans are not the joke that Vegas and everyone else is making them out to be. This might seem laughable for anyone who was watching the Texans fend off a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start Saturday. But as the game wore on, everyone got a sense of how the Texans do their business. Set the tone with your top-ranked defense and set a comfortable tempo for the offense. 

If you're looking for proof of Houston's legitimacy, look no further than what Bill Belichick said about the most versatile defensive player on the Texans.

Nope, not the injured J.J. Watt. Not even Jadeveon Clowney. This is what the Patriots head coach said Monday about inside linebacker Bernardrick McKinney.

"Well, he's a very good football player. We did a lot of work on him coming out of Mississippi State," Belichick said. "He's the kind of player that played outside and inside linebacker. Also played a little bit at defensive end, is an excellent blitzer, runs very well, is long.

"He's 6-4, so he gets to a lot of plays with his length, particularly in pass coverage, a hard guy to throw over or around, a very good tackler, good range, good speed, good instincts, good wrap-up tackler. The guy is a real good football player that does a lot for their defense, plays a lot of positions and is, again, does so many things well."

It was McKinney who was a lone beast against the Patriots in the 27-0 New England win on Sept. 22 at Gillette. He had 16 tackles and a sack. The Texans were down just 10-0 at the half. And it was largely McKinney - anchoring the middle of the defense - that was holding them close.

"It's very unusual to find a player with his skills that can do so many things in the running game, in the passing game, on the line, off the line," Belichick continued. "He's an excellent player, one of the best players we've played against all year. He played well against us. With [Brian] Cushing inside as well, those two guys are as good as any combination of inside [linebackers] - I mean individually they're as good as we've played against - but they're as good as any combination of inside linebackers that we see or that we've seen in a while. They do everything well."

This is not coach-speak. This is a history lesson.

Remember 2010? That Patriots team was 14-2 and was playing a Jets team they humiliated even worse than New England's 27-0 wipeout of the Texans in Week 3. That was the year Rex Ryan brought Mark Sanchez and the Jets into Gillette Stadium, six weeks after getting thrashed 45-3 on Monday night football. The Patriots and Packers were destined to meet in the Super Bowl. Brady had an MVP season. He was brilliant.

This all sound familiar?

You think the scoring defense was good this year? That year, the defense, led by the likes of Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren up front and Jerod Mayo in the middle, held their opponents to seven points or less in four of the final five games. They finished the season with an eight-game winning streak.

They were going to maul the helpless Jets and Rex Ryan at Gillette. It was fait accomplit.

That was the year the Jets shocked Tom Brady and the Patriots, 28-21, in a game that wasn't even that close because the Jets defense threw all sorts of weird looks at Brady and dropped coverage. This Texans defense has the capability of playing even better than that Jets defense that night.

For one thing, they have younger, better players up front and the best inside linebacker no one is paying attention to in McKinney. For another, they have a secondary that - while there's no Darrelle Revis in his prime - can cover with the best of them.

"They're tremendous; the best team we've played in terms of pass defense and the way they're playing," Josh McDaniels added Tuesday. "Again, I think it starts with the fact that they're all tied together. They don't play just one coverage; they play a multitude of things depending on the situation you're talking about. They're always in the right position; they play with very good technique. They don't let the ball go over their head and they challenge every throw whether it's inside, outside, short, deep, intermediate. They have a lot of pass breakups."

The Texans don't have J.J. Watt but they do have McKinney, Brian Cushing, Whitney Mercilus and Johnathan Joseph in the secondary. This is a Texans defense that is the top-ranked unit in football, allowing just 301 yards per game. They held rookie quarterback Connor Cook to 2-of-16 on third down last week.

"They've gotten their hands on a lot of balls, they finish well on the ball, and then tie that in with a tremendous pass rush, that's the formula," McDaniels said. "You've got to be careful with what you're trying to do and how long you're trying to hold it, but you need some time to create some space and get open. There's a balance there. They obviously have done it as well as any other team in the league on defense. It will be a great challenge for us and we're going to need a great week of preparation to be able to go out there and do some things hopefully to move the ball both on the ground and in the air."

If you think Brock Osweiler isn't capable of playing at least as well as "The Sanchize" you should re-consider your perspective.

Everyone knows that the quarterback-desperate Texans overpaid for Osweiler, to the tune of four years, $72 million ($37 million guaranteed). But the bigger picture is that the Texans wanted a quarterback with a strong enough arm to get it downfield to DeAndre Hopkins - one of the two or three most gifted receivers in football. They wanted a quarterback who could tuck it and run if he needed to and actually deliver a blow when he runs, somewhat in the same mold as Ben Roethlisberger.

Like Sanchez against the Patriots in Jan. 2011, the Texans are going to ask Osweiler not to screw up. Let the defense dictate everything. And when in doubt, check down to the security blankets provided by the tight ends.

"Another really good example of the coaches and Coach O'Brien really getting them - and [offensive coordinator] George Godsey - getting him to understand like, 'Hey, here's what the coverage is, here's where the receivers are, this is where we're going to go with the ball, let's not try to force it into a bad situation,'" Pats defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said.

"They'll take calculated shots and push the ball when they need to but they're also going to take the profit when it's there. So [he has] definitely has done a good job of understanding that. Brock brings a whole other element of mobility and size and an issue as far as even just trying to tackle the guy, extending plays and obviously combined with the strong arm, it's a problem for the defense."

Osweiler has a win against the Patriots under his belt when the Broncos defense and special teams came up with big plays last season in Denver. He handed off to C.J. Anderson and that made up for his one interceptions and three sacks.

There was talk from Matt Patricia that the the Texans are a bit more up-tempo now than they were in September. That won't really matter - as Patricia admitted - since the Patriots have faced all various forms of tempo this season.

The Patriots have the obvious advantage in this game but the point here is to simply stress that the Patriots will have to do more than just show up Saturday.

They will have to execute, and execute against a staff that knows them very well. This game Saturday night is all about Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel trying different ways to get to Tom Brady.

If Crennel and his young, gifted defense is successful, then Saturday night is going to be a lot closer than the experts would have ever imagined.