NFL Preview - New England (8-3) at Houston (2-9)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Go ahead, admit it. This matchup - New England at Houston - was one you had circled as a possible preview of this season's AFC Championship Game.
There was plenty of reason for such a forecast, given the Texans' pre-2013 status as a two-time defending AFC South Division champion, and the Patriots' status as, well -- the Patriots.
They'd met just a few months earlier with loser-goes-home stakes, too, when New England defeated Houston, 41-28, in January's divisional playoffs.
This season, though, not so much.
Rather than preparing for a victory lap in the season's final month, the Texans suffered the NFL's ultimate indignity last week - dropping a 13-6 decision to the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars, who'd won all of one previous game - for their franchise-record ninth consecutive loss.
"It's been tough. It's been frustrating," said Andre Johnson, who stands fourth in the league with 1,002 receiving yards. "If I had to bet my life I wouldn't think we would be in this position."
Though he wasn't at the helm for the first several losses, quarterback Case Keenum has plummeted since winning the starting job from veteran Matt Schaub.
The University of Houston product completed 18 passes for 169 yards and was picked off once in the loss to the Jaguars while posting a 54.7 passer rating.
The Texans have averaged less than 16 points per game in the nine losses.
"We've got to find a way to eliminate some of the mistakes and some of the things that are happening to him," coach Gary Kubiak said. "Those will happen as he continues to play. You just, you want to find a young man some success."
Not helping the youngster's cause has been the sudden absence of a run game.
Pro Bowler Arian Foster was lost for the season with an injury and has since been replaced by Ben Tate, who had seven carries for a single yard against Jacksonville while soldiering with broken ribs. Tate's backup,. Dennis Johnson, had 74 yards on 13 rushes.
Houston has averaged 81 yards per game on the ground in the last three weeks, but it faces an opponent in New England that was remarkably porous last week - allowing 280 rush yards against Denver in an overtime victory.
The Patriots are second to last in the league with an average opposition run clip of 139.7 yards.
"I don't know if (Tate) ever got into a rhythm with what he's doing," Kubiak said. "We know what he's going through. He's not practicing during the week, he's just playing on Sundays. So I know that's tough but I think Ben will bounce back."
Ever the diplomat, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is expecting a pitched battle.
"They have a lot of the same guys they had last year," he said. "We're not even concerned about the record. You look at what they can do defensively and the kind of playmakers they have. They have probably the best front we've faced all season.
"We have a big challenge. I don't think we've really performed to our level of what we need to. We're still building and trying to figure out what kind of team we're going to be. This will be a good week to see if we can finally put together 60 good minutes."
New England coach Bill Belichick cited his team's resilience after last week's triumph, in which it trailed, 24-0, before rallying to win, 34-31, on a field goal with less than two minutes remaining in the extra session.
"One thing we've shown is that, mentally, we have some toughness," Belichick said. "We've been in some bad situations.We've been able to hang in there even when it hasn't always looked great. But, really, I would say that the season for us is kind of starting now. The teams that play well in November, December and January, those are the teams that are standing in the end."
The Patriots can all but clinch a fifth straight AFC East title with a victory, thanks to losses by both of their nearest pursuers - Miami and the New York Jets - last week. New England is 27-2 in its last 29 December games.
Running back Brandon Bolden had 58 yards and a TD on the ground last week, while teammate Shane Vereen compiled 91 all-purpose yards. Vereen had 124 yards and scored three times in the playoff game in January.
Both Steven Ridley and LeGarrette Blount were benched last week after fumbles.
Elsewhere, tight end Rob Gronkowski has retaken his place among the league's elites since returning from injury in Week 7. His 433 receiving yards are best in the league at his position since his 2013 debut.
Houston is first in the league in both passing defense (171.8 yards per game) and total defense (290.4 yards per game).
"You have to know exactly what you're supposed to do and how you're supposed to execute it," Texans defensive end J.J. Watt said. "Know your plan and be prepared,"
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Do it again.
Vereen was a revelation in the Patriots' playoff defeat of Houston and there's little reason to believe Brady won't be looking for a repeat this week. Vereen was thrown to 11 times last week against Denver and caught eight passes, several in third-down spots.
Promote Mr. Tate.
If he's anywhere near complete health, Houston's Tate could be an impactful weapon against a New England team that's suffered against running backs. A reliance on Tate could also take heat off the erratic Keenum, who's been enduring the predictable rookie growing pains.
Let's face it, the playoff version of the Texans wasn't good enough to derail the Patriots 11 months ago, so it's hard to imagine the version coming off a loss to Jacksonville would have the stuff this week. They might hang early, but Brady and Co. will ultimately have too much.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Patriots 24, Texans 14
11/29 09:49:49 ET