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November 30. 2013 11:02PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Gap between Pats, Texans may not be so large


Texans defensive end J.J. Watt celebrates sacking Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne during the first half last Sunday at Reliant Stadium in Houston. Despite Houston's poor season, Watt is still one of the NFL's top pass rushers. (Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports)

AS A 2-9 record reflects, this season has been different for the Texans from the one that brought them to Gillette Stadium last December as the best team in the NFL, then brought them back to Foxborough a month later for a divisional playoff game.

They've lost star running back Arian Foster to season-ending injury after eight games, they've lost head coach Gary Kubiak for a brief time after he suffered a small stroke at halftime of one contest, they've lost confidence in their quarterback, and they've lost nine games in a row, most recently bottoming out with an embarrassing 13-6 loss to the lowly Jaguars.

So Houston is co-owner of football's worst record while New England is coming off the high of its comeback win over Denver last Sunday night. That, plus a holiday interrupting the week of preparation, would seem to leave a trap awaiting the Patriots' arrival at Reliant Stadium this afternoon.

But it's not the risk of looking past or underestimating the Texans that makes this a dangerous game for the Patriots. Rather, it's the threat that the Pats' susceptibility to hurting themselves in key spots could create chances for the Texans to make the type of big plays they've so sorely been lacking this season.

Those big plays, after all, are what separate Houston from the rest of the teams sitting within a game of .500 and fighting for the AFC's sixth playoff spot. The Texans' defense has allowed fewer yards per game than any team in the NFL, has the No. 1 unit in terms of passing yardage, and they're in the league's upper tier in third-down stops. On the other side, even without Foster they're averaging 4.4 yards per rush, are better than average in terms of overall yards from scrimmage, and through five starts quarterback Case Keenum has a better passer rating (89.6) than Tom Brady (86.3) this season.

Houston, however, has undermined its efforts by making too many mistakes, and too often winding up on the wrong side of a game's turning points.

The Texans rank second-worst in the NFL with 12 more giveaways than takeaways, and not only do those plays change games, but they also give opponents opportunities on short fields, which is part of the reason their defense ranks first in yardage though 26th in points allowed. They've allowed opposing quarterbacks to toss 18 touchdowns against them, while gaining only four interceptions.

They've surrendered eight touchdowns on returns, which is four times as many as they have scored with their running game. They give up more points per opponents' red zone trip (5.53) than any team in the league, according to stats website Football Outsiders, and offensively they're second-worst (4.07) by the same measure.Basically, they haven't put enough pressure on their opponents to prompt miscues, and when the pressure has been on them they haven't been able to handle it well enough to turn it into a positive. They've been in position plenty often, even against good teams - having lost by three or less against the Seahawks, Chiefs, Colts and Cardinals - but those other teams are winners because they find a way to make the necessary plays. And the Texans are where they are because they don't.The worry for the Patriots is that in their three losses they've shown a maddening tendency to beat themselves, particularly on the road. They turned the ball over twice against the Bengals. They choked away chances, and were dreadful on third down, in losing to the Jets. Penalties and turnovers cost them points against the Panthers.

If they're sloppy today, and Houston takes advantage by making one or two of the plays that have been missing this season, the Texans could show how narrow the gap is between 8-3 and 2-9 in a league where everything is designed to meet in the middle. Houston probably isn't as bad as its record suggests.

And if New England gives them chances to prove that, then maybe the Patriots aren't as good as their record suggests, either.

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UNDERRATED: Chandler Jones. Patriots fans know he's good, but his being honored this week as AFC defensive player of the month should put in perspective just how good he is. With 10½ so far, he's on pace for more than 15 sacks this season. At long last, the Pats have a legitimate pass rusher.

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OVERRATED: Gary Kubiak's return to the sidelines. The Texans head coach will return to the sideline today for the first time since he collapsed on the field at halftime on Nov. 3, and while it's a good sign for his health, it may not much help his team. He has been coaching from the booth for a few weeks, and the team didn't appear any worse with him there than they were at field level.

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KEEP AN EYE ON.: J.J. Watt. The Texans' beastly defensive end is having another strong season - 9½ sacks, four passes defended, three forced fumbles - and it's been shown repeatedly that if a team can get to Brady early, the Patriots can be disrupted. It will be important for New England not to let Watt make a play that changes the game early, particularly with the Pats already down to their third-string at right tackle with Marcus Cannon ruled out.

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KEY MATCHUP: Patriots' front seven vs. Texans' running game. With Foster out for the year, Ben Tate has become Houston's top back, but last week the Jaguars showed what limiting him can do for the entire defense. The Jaguars held Tate to one yard on seven carries, and limited the Texans to just six points. Stopping the run hasn't been a strength for New England, which ranks 31st in that category, but it should be a priority today.

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STAT OF THE WEEK: Brady noted this week that most of Houston's defense remains the same as the unit the Patriots saw in 2012, and that's got to have him salivating. In two games against the Texans last season, the quarterback went 46 for 75 (61.3 percent) for 640 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions.

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Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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