Rich Hill of our sister site, Pats Pulpit, was kind enough to answer some questions for us about his banged-up (yet still somehow dominant) Patriots in advance of tomorrow night’s showdown. We’re talking Jacoby Brissett, Tom Brady’s absence, and the absolute last team that New Englanders want to see the Pats play in January. Take a look below.
1. Jimmy Garoppolo (probably? likely? surely?) won't be playing this Thursday, but Jacoby Brissett will. I can't remember the last time the Patriots started a third-string quarterback, but knowing Bill Belichick, I'm sure he will still find a way to make this team competitive. What are your expectations with Brissett under center against an elite Texans front seven?
The projection is even more difficult with the short week, but I expect we'll see a similar game plan to what the Patriots did in the second half against the Dolphins. They rode RB LeGarrette Blount with 19 carries with Brissett on the field, out of a total of 35 plays, and simplified the offense for Brissett.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called up a handful of plays with a single read that manufactured separation with bootlegs, rubs, and quick passes so Brissett didn't have to stand in the pocket too long. If the first read was covered, then Brissett would run (3 carries, 13 yards) or throw the ball away. With a week of prep, albeit a short one, I'm sure that McDaniels will have at least 20 or 30 plays that he feels comfortable using with Brissett to get the ball into the hands of his receivers—and who knows, maybe Rob Gronkowski will back and that could change everything.
Realistically, I don't know if we can expect more than 200 passing yards from Brissett; if he doesn't turn the ball over, that'll be a win.
2. What other injuries would you say are the most worrisome right now in New England? Is the offensive line still banged up? What about Gronk?
Oh, gosh, all of them? Actually, the Patriots are healthier now than they have been for the first two weeks of the season. They had 11 players on the injury report last week. Now it's down to 6, so that's great news.
The offensive line is starting to get healthy. They didn't have franchise LT Nate Solder in Week 1 and RG Shaq Mason is finally off the injury report after breaking his hand in the preseason. The wide receivers are finally healthy again after Julian Edelman had foot surgery, Danny Amendola had knee surgery, Chris Hogan had a shoulder injury, and Malcolm Mitchell dislocated his elbow in the preseason.
The offense has stayed afloat without TE Rob Gronkowski due to fantastic play from TE Martellus Bennett; Bennett's performance makes it easier to rest Gronkowski until he's 100%.
The most worrisome injury is clearly Garoppolo and his shoulder, but since that one is too obvious, I'll point to LB Dont'a Hightower. Hightower is a defensive captain, one of the best blitzing linebackers in the league, and is the heart of the defense. Jamie Collins might be more physically impressive, but Hightower rarely makes mistakes. The Patriots have replaced him with Jonathan Freeny, who is adequate at best and awful at worst.
3. Let's just speculate and say that you end up 2-2 in these first four games before Brady makes his return. Is that better, worse, or right about what you expected?
It's exactly where we all projected at the start of the season, but expectations can and should change after seeing results. Everyone who had the Patriots beating the Cardinals is a liar, so the goal was for the Patriots to go 2-1 over the final three games. If they end up 2-2, it's because they dropped two of the final three, which is below expectations. It'd feel even worse because the Bills are a dumpster fire.
I think most had this Texans game as the more likely second loss over the first four weeks.
4. Let's also just assume that the Patriots will be playing football in January. Which teams do you absolutely NOT want to see in the playoffs?
I always have to point to the AFC North because they have no fear of the Patriots. The Steelers could win a high scoring affair, while the Ravens have acted as the Patriots’ kryptonite over the past decade. I think the Patriots have a pretty good track record against the Colts and Texans in recent years, especially in the playoffs, and they would love another crack at the Broncos.
Of course, if the Patriots are on the road, they probably don't want to go to Denver again. That's like a House of Horrors for them for some reason.
5. Which teams DO you want to play against in the playoffs?
The Colts, although they don't look like they're in good shape. The Chiefs because Andy Reid doesn't understand how clocks work. The Patriots would feel pretty good about their chances against any team in the AFC so long as the game is in New England.
What a coincidence, because right now I would love to play against Indianapolis, too! There’s just something about Jim Irsay being miserable that can magically bring two fan-bases together like that.
Thank you to Rich for stopping by. With any luck, this will not be the last time we speak to him this season.