NFL 2nd Round: Houston-New England

Houston’s visit to New England on Sunday afternoon (4:30 PM ET, CBS) will bring an end to the NFL 2nd round. It’s a rematch of Monday Night game in December when the Patriots blasted the Texans 42-14 and sent them free-falling out of the #1 seed in the AFC. Does Houston have a bounceback in them, or is New England rolling to at least another AFC Championship Game appearance? We’ll look at the matchup, the historical context and how the betting lines look.

THE MATCHUP: Houston makes its living on the ground with Arian Foster, and I expect him to have a good game on Sunday. But New England has made a lot of strides defensively this season, after being porous a year ago, even in a Super Bowl year. A beefed-up effort against the run is the biggest demonstration of the improvement. Foster is the best of the non-superhuman running backs in the NFL (a group that includes everyone except Adrian Peterson), but unless the Patriot defense can be loosened up, he can have a good game, but not a great one.

New England is beatable through the air, but that’s where Houston’s problems have come. Matt Schaub did not play well down the stretch and he was mediocre—at best—in last week’s first-round win over Cincinnati. There’s also not a lot of diversity in the offense. If Schaub isn’t targeting Andre Johnson then it seems he isn’t targeting anyone. Barring some type of serious step-up by Schaub, it would seem the best Houston can do is to run the ball fairly well and mix in some big throws to Johnson.

That’s a formula that can work, but only if you slow down the opposing offense. Suffice it to say that’s a considerable challenge when Tom Brady is the opposing quarterback. The Patriots have been the most prolific offense in the league and they have no weaknesses. Brady has the receivers in Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. He has the tight ends in a healthy Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. And he has the running game in Stevan Ridley. Even if you play well defensively against the Patriots, you still have to assume the offense needs a minimum of 28 points.

THE CONTEXT: Houston made the playoffs for the first time last season, so the history between these two franchises boils down to that Monday Night Game in December. And I suppose we can throw in the 2009 regular season finale, a meaningless game where the Patriots played their starters and Wes Welker got hurt. That’s not much of a history. But the cities have met in the NFL playoffs. Back in 1978, the old Houston Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans) came to Foxboro and hammered the second-seeded Patriots 31-14. The city of Boston got its revenge by winning two NBA Finals matchups between the Celtics and Rockets in the 1980s, and when the Patriots won their second Super Bowl in 2003 over Carolina, the game was played in Houston.

THE VIEW FROM VEGAS:  New England is a 9.5 point favorite and based on the lines posted this morning at The Mirage, they’re the biggest favorite of the weekend, though they and Denver are running neck-and-neck and probably depends what book you look at. The Over/Under of 47.5 is also the highest of the second round.

PREDICTION: The strongest argument anyone has made for Houston is that because New England lost a 2010 second-round game to the New York Jets after destroying the Jets in a Monday Night Game in December, perhaps history could repeat itself. Just ask yourself—if you and I have had these recollections of 2010, do you think Tom Brady or Bill Belichick might have remembered, and perhaps passed those thoughts on to the rest of the team in a motivational kind of way? No, if Houston is going to win, it’s going to have to genuinely be a case of the first meeting being a fluke.

The fluke thing is certainly possible—New England isn’t four touchdowns better than Houston. While Schaub isn’t inspiring confidence, he has the talent to have a big game—is it impossible to imagine Johnson with 14 catches for 135 yards? If you can envision that, you can envision a scenario where Houston wins, supplemented by Foster running the ball and keeping Brady on the sidelines.

So I’m not board with the idea that this game is all but decided before its played, but let’s also be realistic. Brady just has too many weapons and there’s going to be enormous pressure on Schaub to keep up, pressure I don’t think he’s given any sign of being able to match. Houston will have its moments, but only enough to keep the pointspread in doubt until the fourth quarter, and even there they come up short. New England wins it 35-23.

Outright Winners: 3-0*
Pointspread Winners: 2-1
Totals Line: 1-2
*Recused myself from the Washington-Seattle case due to fan bias