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NFL Preview - New England (10-5) at Houston (8-7)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - For the first time in their eight-season history, the Houston Texans have something to play for in the month of January. When the New England Patriots visit Reliant Stadium for a Week 17 battle on Sunday, it will be determined whether Houston's January continues on the field.
The Texans enter their regular season finale at 8-7, on a three-game win streak and on the doorstep of their first winning season since entering the league in 2002.
That Gary Kubiak's team would still be in the postseason mix at this late date would have been unthinkable as Dec. 6, when the Texans finished off a painful four-game losing skid with a 23-18 loss at the Jacksonville Jaguars, dropping to 5-7 as Kubiak began to confront routine questions about his own job security.
But Houston rallied around its head coach during a three-game stretch that saw the team post wins over the Seahawks (34-7), Rams (16-13), and Dolphins (27-20) - the latter two games on the road - to boost its playoff chances considerably.
The Texans will clinch a wild card berth with a victory against the Patriots and losses for the Jets (vs. Bengals) and Ravens (at Raiders), a victory and losses for the Jets and Broncos (vs. Chiefs), or a victory and losses for the Ravens and Broncos.
Though that scenario would seem someone daunting, the Texans will concentrate mostly on controlling what they can control Sunday, and that means taking out a Patriots team that is in the postseason bracket, although it won't know quite where until Sunday night.
New England clinched the AFC East title with a 35-7 thrashing of the Jaguars last week, and based on the fact that it can catch neither the bye week-bound Colts (14-1) or Chargers (12-3) at the top of the conference, Bill Belichick's squad will occupy either the No. 3 or No. 4 seed, with the AFC North-winning Bengals (10-5) the other possibility for either of those spots. New England holds a tie-breaker edge over Cincinnati based on a better strength of victory, but that could change based on the outcomes of every Week 17 game played by a 2009 Patriots or Bengals opponent.
Meanwhile, it has been speculated that Belichick will forsake playing for a better seed and will rest many of his key players in preparation for the team's Wild Card Round game next weekend.
To that end, Belichick was typically evasive on a Tuesday press conference with reporters.
"Whoever plays, plays," said Belichick. "Whoever doesn't play, doesn't play. But it's like that every week. We could go out there and on the first play of the game something could happen and somebody else could be in there. Everybody needs to be ready to go all the time. "
New England has won its only two all-time meetings with Houston, winning by a 40-7 count when the teams last met, at Gillette Stadium in 2006, and also taking a 23-20 overtime decision when the teams met at Reliant Stadium in Week 12 of the 2003 season. The Patriots defeated the Panthers at Reliant, 32-29, in Super Bowl XXXVIII. The Patriots last lost in Houston during the 1988 season, when they fell to the Oilers at the Astrodome.
Belichick is 2-0 in his career against the Texans, while Houston's Kubiak is 0-1 against both Belichick and New England as a head coach.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
The Patriots enter Week 17 with the league's No. 2-ranked offense (402.7 yards per game) and No. 4 passing game (279.5 yard per game), though it's unclear how much the Texans will see of the main compilers of those numbers. Quarterback Tom Brady (4212 passing yards, 28 TD, 12 INT) and wideouts Randy Moss (78 receptions, 13 TD) and Wes Welker (122 receptions, 4 TD) would seem to be the commodities most worth protecting, though Welker may stay in long enough to notch the two receptions he would need to post the second-highest single-season catch total in NFL history. The Colts' Marvin Harrison owns the record with 143 grabs in 2002. If Brady is pulled, the team will go to undrafted rookie Brian Hoyer under center. The Michigan State product has mopped up in three games this year, completing 11-of-15 passes for 71 yards. In the running game, both Laurence Maroney (757 rushing yards, 9 TD, 14 receptions) and Sammy Morris (310 rushing yards, 2 TD, 16 receptions) could see time with the first-team. Morris got the bulk of the carries against Jacksonville as Maroney continued to struggle with fumbling issues, with the ex-Dolphin and Bill carrying 12 times for 95 yards and a touchdown in his most productive outing in over a year.
The Texans' middling defensive unit, which ranks 14th overall (325.4 yards per game) and 17th against the pass (216.3 yards per game), will catch a major break if it doesn't have to see Brady and his top targets. Cornerbacks Dunta Robinson (57 tackles) and Glover Quin (61 tackles) have been average for most of the year, though safety Bernard Pollard (96 tackles, 3 INT, 1.5 sacks) has been a consistent playmaker. Defensive end Mario Williams (41 tackles, 8 sacks) was named to the Pro Bowl team earlier this week despite being behind his double-digit sack pace of the previous two seasons. Another Pro Bowler, rookie linebacker Brian Cushing (128 tackles, 4 sacks, 4 INT), has contributed to both the pass rushing effort and to the work of a run-stopping group that is 13th in the league (109.1 yards per game). Cushing had a sack, an interception, and nine tackles to help pace a Houston defense that allowed just 60 ground yards to the run-first Dolphins last week. Middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans (116 tackles, 1 sack), who joins Cushing on the AFC Pro Bowl team, posted a team- best 11 stops, and tackles Amobi Okoye (35 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Jeff Zgonina (27 tackles, 2.5 sacks) had two each.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Whether his season ends in the playoffs or not, there is little question that Texans quarterback Matt Schaub (4467 passing yards, 27 TD, 14 INT) has posted the finest year of his NFL career, helping carry a Houston attack that had to endure the injury-related losses of key figures such as tight end Owen Daniels and running back Steve Slaton. Schaub leads the NFL in passing yards as Week 17 begins, and has thrown for 260-plus yards in all but three games this year. The main target has been Andre Johnson (95 receptions, 9 TD), who last week became just the second player in NFL history (Marvin Harrison) to post back-to-back 1,500-yard seasons. Johnson has averaged 140.3 receiving yards over his past four games and has four touchdowns over that span. Schaub's secondary targets have differed, but tight end Joel Dreessen (20 receptions) has done an admirable job in place of Daniels and slot receiver Jacoby Jones (22 receptions, 5 TD) added value with a 44-yard touchdown catch last week. There has been a revolving door at running back for a team that is last in the league in yards per carry (3.3) and rushes of 20 yards or longer (3), but Houston found a nice mix last week with undrafted rookie Arian Foster (138 rushing yards, 1 TD) carrying 19 times for 97 yards and third-down back Ryan Moats (373 rushing yards, 13 receptions, 5 TD) contributing 62 total yards on 12 touches.
The Patriots have taken heat at various times this year for the play of their secondary, though the fact that the team has allowed a total of 24 points during its three-game winning streak speaks to the theory that this group has turned the corner. Two recent starting additions to the secondary - veteran cornerback Shawn Springs (37 tackles, 1 INT) and longtime Pats safety James Sanders (38 tackles) - have helped the cause. The duo combined for four pass breakups last week, while Springs and safety Brandon Meriweather (73 tackles, 5 INT) both had interceptions of Jacksonville's David Garrard. Linebackers Tully Banta-Cain (52 tackles, 9.5 sacks) and Gary Guyton (80 tackles, 2 sacks) both had sacks of Garrard, though pass rushing remains something of a liability. The Pats enter Week 17 ranked 11th against the run (108.3 yards per game), though the team has also tightened up when it matters, allowing a league-low-tying four rushing touchdowns, along with the Vikings. Inside linebacker Jerod Mayo (95 tackles, 1.5 sacks) was a machine against the Jaguars last week, recording 15 tackles for a club that was without top linemen Ty Warren (46 tackles, 1 sack) and nose tackle Vince Wilfork (43 tackles) due to injury. Wilfork (foot) and Warren (ankle) are among those who could be held out for precautionary reasons on Sunday.
Most fantasy playoffs have already reached their conclusion, but for those that continue into Week 17, this game should carry a great deal of meaning. Using any of the Patriots principles - especially Brady, Moss, and Welker - is a very risky move. If backup QB Brian Hoyer sees the field at any point here, you simply can't expect the offense to function at a high level. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski might be the closest to a sure thing that you'll find on the Patriots roster in this one.
Meanwhile, Houston's dynamic duo of Schaub and Johnson remains well worth using, and though the running back situation seems to be fluid at this stage, it would be a surprise if Foster doesn't get a majority of the carries for the Texans. Houston kicker Kris Brown is also a good play here.
Clearly, there is greater motivation for the Texans to win this game than the Patriots, and it would surprise absolutely no one if Belichick seeks to take his key players out of harm's way some time early in this contest. None of which means that Houston will run away here, since New England is still fairly deep and talented, beyond their stars, and the Texans are not a team that has beaten even its most downtrodden opponents (see: the Rams two weeks ago) by decisive margins. Kubiak's club will do what it takes here to get to 9-7, but it will be something less than a breeze.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 24, Patriots 20
12/30 17:39:06 ET