If I had an ominous feeling last week (yet still picked the Texans to win!), I'd describe how I feel this week as positively terrified. Whether it's the Patriots not losing three games in a row since this was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100...
...or J.J. Watt playing through a broken hand (which I do think will dramatically affect him, as he won't be able to grab or use his hands as well as he normally does, no matter what anyone says or how phenomenal he is), or the fact that Rob Gronkowski returned to practice yesterday and Julian Edelman returned to practice today (though there's no guarantee either will actually play on Sunday night), or Tom Brady being JUST A TRIFLE better than Brian Hoyer, or the Patriots having a history of beating the Texans, or some combination of all of the above. I just know I have a palpable sense of dread. I can't shake the idea that the loss to the Bills last week was the one game that we'll be looking back at in a few weeks as what truly kept the Texans out of the playoffs. But that's not going to stop me from engaging in my routine folly of predicting what's going to happen when the Houston Texans take the field. As Kelly Clarkson once warbled, everything changes, but "Three and Out" remains.
1. Bill Belichick is famous for putting together a gameplan that takes away the one thing the opposition loves to do the most. For the Texans' offense, that one thing is DeAndre Hopkins. If the Texans are going to move the ball through the air, it'll have to be predominantly through Nate Washington, Cecil Shorts III, and Ryan Griffin. While I think Brian Hoyer can have some success getting the ball to those guys, especially across the middle of the field, I think Malcolm Butler, with help from Devin McCourty, will hold Hopkins to less than five catches, less than 65 yards, and only one TD on the night.
2. If ever there was a time for Jadeveon Clowney to assert himself as a monster, Sunday night is it. The Patriots' offensive line can be had, and you have to believe that Belichick will focus on keeping J.J. Watt in check. I foresee Clowney answering the bell on Sunday evening in front of a national television audience and having his best game as a pro against the best team in the NFL. Mark Clowney down for 1.5 sacks, three tackles for loss, and at least two plays where he chases a running back or wide receiver down from the other side of the field, leaving you scratching your head and wondering how he did that.
3. If Edelman does in fact miss Sunday night's game (and I think he will, having just returned to practice earlier today), Keshawn Martin will play meaningful snaps for the Patriots. This is where I'm supposed to predict that Martin, traded by the Texans three months ago, will somehow explode for a big game against his former team. Nope. I'm going the other way. Martin will be directly responsible for a Patriots turnover, either by fumbling the ball or bobbling a pass from Brady that gets picked off.
PUT YOUR NAME ON IT: If the Texans beat the Patriots, with or without Gronk and Edelman in the lineup, they are going to the playoffs, winning the AFC South, and NRG Stadium will host a postseason game during the second weekend of January. If they lose, the Texans are not done, but things will be definitively trending that way, with a road game at Indianapolis looming as a must-win (which, to be fair, it probably is regardless of what happens against the Patriots). I desperately want to pick the Texans to recapture some of the magic they had on Monday Night Football against the Bengals a month ago. I simply can't. Patriots 34, Texans 24.
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