Houston Texans (10-7 SU, 7-9-1 ATS) vs. New England Patriots (12-4 SU, 13-3 ATS)
AFC Divisional Playoff
Date/Time: Saturday, January 14, 2017 at 8:15PM EST
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts
By Loot, NFL Football Handicapper, Lootmeister.com
Betting Odds: HOU +16/NE -16
Over/Under Total: 44.5
The Houston Texans come to Gillette Stadium on Saturday to face the New England Patriots in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. Houston made it to this spot on the strength of their wild card playoff game win over the Raiders last Saturday, 27-14. The AFC South champions now move on to New England as big underdogs against the conference's top-seed. The Patriots, 14-2 on the season, got the first-round bye, as they lick their chops awaiting their incoming opponent.
These teams are familiar with each other, having already played in week three. Granted, in an NFL season where teams go through so much, it's not clear how pertinent a week three game is by the time you reach the divisional round of the playoffs. Then again, New England was able to shut out the Texans, 27-0, and they did it without Tom Brady who was still serving his four-game suspension. The Pats were able to run the ball well, with Osweiler having a rough day. Sure, a lot has changed since then, but if anything, it's the winner of that game in the Pats who will be improved this time around, with Brady now in the mix.
Houston certainly benefitted from playing a Raiders team on Saturday in the Wild Card round that was heavily-compromised without Derek Carr. Yet they continue to win, despite a lot of issues all over the field. The offense was tepid this season. The defense was a lot better, but also had to endure some personnel issues. Against Oakland, they continued to thrive at home, going to 8-1 at NRG Stadium this season. On the road, they've been decidedly less-fearsome. They have a negative point-differential on the season and a lot of people struggle in identifying the reasons the Texans have won back-to-back division titles and are now one game away from the conference championship game.
Brock Osweiler was by no means dynamic, but his performance against Oakland was enough to keep him behind center. He was 14-for-25 with 168 yards and a touchdown against the Raiders. He also ran in a score. The run-game wasn't electric against Oakland with Lamar Miller racking up just 73 yards on 31 carries. DeAndre Hopkins was big with some nice catches, including a TD grab. Again, it was a subdued offensive performance, but with Oakland unable to gain any foothold, it was more than enough. We'll see if the general lack of offense costs them in a tougher spot this week. But Osweiler seemed better as a result of getting benched. Maybe after a tough season, he feels a little extra urgency to please those who put so much faith in his hands. But if they couldn't even put up 300 yards against the Oakland defense, how will they fare this week against a rested Patriots defense?
If Houston plans on taking it past this point, the defense will need to be a big part of it. On the season, they were ranked as the top defense in he NFL overall. They did nothing to dispel that on Saturday. The secondary, one of the best in the league, was again exemplary. Both AJ Bouye and Corey Moore registered picks and kept Oakland's two 1000-yards receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree in check with 43 combined yards. In the front seven, Jadeveon Clowney continued to shine and helped get things going in Houston's direction with an early interception. Whitney Mercillus applied a consistent rush and registered two sacks. Jonathan Joseph, Quintin Demps (questionable), and Andre Hal again thrived in the secondary, with DJ Reader getting a sack up-front, along with Vince Wilfork, Brian Cushing, and Benardrick McKinney chipping in along the way.
When you look at Houston, you see a good defense, a well-coached team, and an offense that isn't that great. But they are an opportunistic team, as Oakland found out in the Wild Card round. When an opponent makes mistakes, they are quick to capitalize. They grind away and are steadfast and by the end of the day, they end up putting up results that surpass what most would forecast. While their negative point-differential on the season is an indicting tidbit, it also shows their ability to deliver in a pinch and win close games. An easy team to overlook, Houston has an ability to manufacture wins and that knack at victory must be taken into account when analyzing the chances of a team whose true worth can't be captured on paper or through stats.
New England was without Tom Brady for 4 weeks and when he returned, he looked better than ever. In 12 games, he threw 28 touchdowns against just two picks on 3554 yards passing. They showcased a balanced offense that was third in the league in scoring. On the other side of the ball, they again got good play, allowing the fewest points in the league at just 15.6 points per game. In their last three games, they have allowed just 20 combined points, indicating that the defense is peaking just in time for the postseason. And with 76 combined points of scoring in their last two games, the same can be said about their offense. Throughout the season, they have been the consensus top contender in the AFC and nothing has happened to really change that. They lost just one game with Brady in 12 attempts and enter this matchup with a 7-game winning streak.
Again, Brady has been at his best, bolstered by strong play up-front. The line has kept Brady out of trouble, with him getting sacked only 15 times. They've also helped spring a run-game that has been key to the Pats' offense. LeGarrette Blount ran for 1161 yards with 18 touchdowns this season and looks to have remained fresh. Through the air, Julian Edelman caught 98 balls and also found his best form late in the season. Tight end Martellus Bennett and WR Chris Hogan are also key weapons. James White has been useful aerially, as has rookie Malcolm Mitchell. Late addition Michael Floyd is an interesting X-factor moving forward in the postseason. While New England was able to continue winning late in the season after losing Rob Gronkowski, the question is if that loss will resonate more in a postseason setting. They're really not as potent offensively without him. Since losing to Seattle, they benefitted from playing the 49ers, Jets (twice), and Rams, with some of those wins making them look a little better than they might actually be. The difficulty ramps up here considerably and they are expecting Mitchell and Danny Amendola back, so we'll see how it goes.
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What makes it really come together defensively for New England is the game-planning. With Belichick's hand in the pot, they are usually able to customize their approach to the right situation, while making in-game adjustments where needed. Against the pass, they were pretty good in 2016 led by guys like Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty, Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, and Eric Rowe. Linebackers Rob Ninkovich and Don't'a Hightower anchor a strong and playmaking middle. And the front deserves a lot of credit for being so rigid against the run this season. Trey Flowers, Chris Long, and Jabaal Sheard have also done well getting after the quarterback. And with 23 takeaways, as opposed to giving the ball up only 11 times all season, they can get their hands on the ball and make plays.
The temptation is to defer to Brady and Belichick in times like this. Unquestionably, the Patriots are deserving as the top choice to take the conference this season, in addition to being Super Bowl favorites. They seem galvanized and the most consistently-motivated group in the league. Brady's track-record in these spots is hard to impugn. Yet, the bookies know this is how people will think and we've reached a point with New England where their value isn't going to be great, as bookies needn't go out of their way to entice action on the Pats. Then again, that's been true to some extent in the past, as well, and a lot of people have lost money year after year on the Patriots based on this whole "don't believe the hype" sentiment. And for what it's worth, none of that worked during the regular season, where the Patriots were far and away the best team in the league against the spread, covering 13 times.
The spread of New England by a fat 16 points is jarring to the eye and on the surface, might seem like a big number. By the same token, this matchup is all wrong for Houston. Their tactics just don't go over as well against a true power like the Patriots. The Pats gave up the fewest points in the league this season and imagining Houston hitting the scoreboard with any regularity is not easy to do. I'm laying the big number.
Loot's Prediction to Cover the Point Spread: I'm betting on the New England Patriots minus 16 points. Tired of your credit card not working for sportsbook deposit? End that problem today and bet the Houston vs. New England AFC divisional playoff game from the comfort of home by signing up at Bovada Sportsbook where your credit card WILL work and where you'll receive a generous 100% sign-up bonus!