Not even when the New England Patriots ran the regular-season table in 2007 were the Pats favored by this much in a playoff game. In fact, against the Houston Texans in the divisional round, the Patriots are the biggest playoff favorite this century.
It makes sense. The Texans won a bad division by default and got lucky by drawing the Derek Carr- and Donald Penn-less Oakland Raiders at home in the wild-card round. But Houston was 2-6 on the road this season, and the mighty Pats beat the Texans in Foxboro 27-0 early in the year despite not having Tom Brady or Brady’s backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, at quarterback.
Brady has since returned, and dominated. He finished the season with a record 28-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and the Pats have lost just one game since that Week 4 meeting.
Last time the Texans played a road playoff game, they were demolished while allowing 41 points at Gillette Stadium, where the Pats have a 15-3 playoff record under Bill Belichick.
So, good luck?
Four things you need to know:
1. For the Texans to win, the defense has to be nearly perfect. Without J.J. Watt, that’s not easy. However, 2014 No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney has been dominant of late and Whitney Mercilus, A.J. Bouye and Brian Cushing are all elite players as well. That might not matter against an offense that committed an AFC-low 11 turnovers during the regular season — six of New England’s last seven games have been turnover-free affairs — but an historic performance from those guys is probably the only thing that can save the heavy underdog Texans.
2. Of course, the Texans will also have to do more on offense. Expensive starting quarterback Brock Osweiler was solid against the Raiders and has at least reestablished himself as the starter, but Osweiler hardly had to throw the ball in the second half. The 26-year-old completed just 12 passes that traveled 20-plus yards in 12 regular-season games, but he did complete back-to-back beautiful deep throws in the second quarter against Oakland. If that Brock can show up against a much better defense on Saturday — and if he can put together a second straight turnover-free performance — and if the defense can make some game-changing plays, the Texans will have a shot. But those are some big ifs. The Texans had just two turnover-free games during the entire regular season.
3. Houston is missing its best player in Watt, but the Patriots aren’t the team we’re used to either. The key absence is of course tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is on injured reserve after undergoing midseason back surgery. The other two missing key cogs from past Pats teams were actually traded, but that defense just doesn’t feel the same without front-seven studs Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins. New England took big chances trading those guys away, but that unit hasn’t missed a beat. During the team’s seven-game winning streak to finish the season, they surrendered a league-low 12.4 points per game while registering 14 takeaways and 18 sacks.
4. Brady is “only” 8-6 in his last 14 playoff games, with 30 touchdown passes but 16 interceptions during that stretch. And his last playoff outing — in a 20-18 2015 AFC title game loss to the Denver Broncos — was one of the worst of his career: 27 for 56, 310 yards, one touchdown, two picks and four sacks, albeit on the road against an historically good defense. It also helps that even though Brady is the league’s oldest position player, that four-game suspension to start the season means the 39-year-old is probably fresher now than he was at this time last year.
Prediction: Under Belichick, the Pats are 9-1 in home divisional playoff games. This team is just rolling over opponents right now, and the worn-out Texans look like a typical New England victim. Big-time Saturday night blowout coming. Patriots 30, Texans 10