Taking stock of the Patriots and Texans

Happy Tuesday, friends.  After the shellacking that the Patriots put on the Texans last night, it’s time to take stock of both teams, since it’s likely that the Broncos will play at least one of them in the playoffs, and maybe both.

There were some noticeable things on display in the game that will be of interest to us in the coming weeks.

Here are five for each team:

Patriots

*  The Patriots have the best point differential in the NFL, and that tends to indicate who the best teams are.  You can have an outlier game sometimes, like the Seattle-Arizona game Sunday, that can give a somewhat misleading picture of cumulative differential.  By and large, though, it tells the story of quality in a season.

As Doug noted this morning, the Patriots’ losses have been very close, and their wins haven’t been.  I think they served notice pretty clearly last night, in a qualitative sense, that they’re the team to beat across the whole NFL, but the point differential has been telling that story virtually all season.

*  New England greatly improved their defense with the acquisition of CB Aqib Talib.  Historically, they’ve liked to use their best CB on the opponent’s number-two WR, and then double the best WR with a safety.  What I saw last night was the Patriots using Talib one-on-one with Andre Johnson, and he did a nice job.  The box score shows eight catches for 95 yards, but one of them was a 25-yarder on a short crossing route, against zone coverage.  The rest of them were pretty un-impactful.

When a defense can feel pretty comfortable playing man against a number-one WR, it frees them up to scheme-defend the other less-threatening receivers.  We’ve seen this with the Broncos and Champ Bailey this year, and the Patriots can now do it too.

*  I said this earlier in the season, but there’s no question that New England’s offense is the best in the NFL.  It’s the best scheme, with the best players, and the most consistent execution.  In fact, I would say that it’s the best one I’ve seen since the 2007 Patriots went undefeated, and that offense was pretty much the best one ever.

I know a lot of people here like to hate Josh McDaniels personally, and I understand why, but if you’re going to try to make the case that he’s not a good football coach, you’re just wrong.  When he has some weapons to work with, nobody in the NFL does a better job of mixing up plays and attacking specific matchups.

The scheme in New England right now is miles ahead of where it was last season under Bill O’Brien, and it’s better than what was used in 2007 (under McDaniels) too.  All it’s missing is Randy Moss in his prime, and that’s largely mitigated by New England’s ability to play up-tempo.

The Patriots are using an absurd mix of personnel groupings and formations, way beyond what anybody else in the NFL is doing.  Their insistence on only acquiring smart players allows them to dominate the mental game, and to always have everybody on the same page, despite a million subtle changes, which are communicated, understood, and adopted by eleven guys on offense within a few seconds. 

Defenses basically have no time to recognize subtle changes in offensive line splits, or the depth of the running backs, or the location of Aaron Hernandez, and adjust to optimally defend what the offense is going to do.  The old adage is that the offense knows what it’s doing, and that’s it’s advantage over the defense.  The Patriots compound that advantage by lining up and snapping the ball so quickly that the defense can’t even begin to figure out what’s coming. 

To me, the only way to compete with the Patriots offense is to just line up, try to maintain your run fits, and cover the guys you’re supposed to cover.  Exotic stuff just isn’t going to work, and good luck playing it straight, even if that’s the right(est) answer.

*  The Patriots offensive line is really mashing defensive fronts in the running game, and their primary RBs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen complement each other well.  Ridley, in particular, is an impressive player who was lost in the college name recognition shuffle a bit among all the talent at LSU.  The running game is better than it’s been since New England had Corey Dillon, and was winning Super Bowls.

The best way to stop any offense is to contain their run game on early downs, and force them into third-and-long.  I’ll be curious to see how well San Francisco does at that next week, because I think they may be the team most capable of stopping the Patriots run game, while staying decently sound against play action.

*  The Foxboro home field advantage is the best in the NFL at this point, in my opinion.  That crowd was loud and engaged, and it clearly rattled Houston, as the wheels were starting to fall off.  The Texans looked frenetic and panicked much of the time, and a crowd that’s been hardened by a lot of big games was a big part of that.

Houston

*  Houston is better than they looked last night, but they have a pretty serious issue in pass defense.  The Packers, Patriots, and Broncos have all lit them up through the air, and made their defense look like it’s not good enough to win a Super Bowl with.  I think they miss Brian Cushing a lot in underneath coverage, and that teams know that Kareem Jackson isn’t good.  They go after him constantly, as the Broncos did with Eric Decker.

*  The Texans aren’t built to play from behind.  They want to throw it deep off of play action, that they sell really well by having a dangerous running game.  When the threat of the run isn’t there, the Texans become a below-average passing team. 

Matt Schaub is an excellent and precise executor within the run-pass scheme, but he lacks elite attributes to dominate with his pure throwing, and the only receiver the Texans have who can win contested matchups is Andre Johnson.  I think he’s heading into a bit of a decline phase, too.  If you make Houston one-dimensional by going up a couple scores early, the difference is dramatic.

*  I didn’t feel like Houston competed well in any phase of the game.  They were much less physical than the Patriots, and they played with less urgency.  Really early in the game, it seemed like they had some “Here we go again” to them.  They really reacted like a bully who gets socked in the mouth, a lot like the Chargers tend to.  It will be interesting to see if that continues, but since it’s on film, I expect other teams to try to physically outhit them, and see if they wilt so easily.

*  J.J. Watt is an excellent player, but the legend of him has gotten bigger than his performance on the field.  He didn’t show very much last night, beyond a couple hits on Tom Brady after he’d let a completion go, and I didn’t think very highly of Watt’s effort later in the game, despite his obvious attributes: you know, he’s a blue-collar, hard-working, smart, lunch-pail kind of guy.

*  I normally consider Texans safeties Glover Quin and Danieal Manning to be pretty good players, but Brady kicked their butts last night.  The long Brandon Lloyd TD was a massive coverage bust by Quin, who had bit on a play-fake.  Johnathan Joseph was playing outside technique as Lloyd ran freely to the post, and no safety help came.

It should be clear that I think the Patriots are a good deal better than the Texans, and that last night’s result was no fluke.  I think it would happen eight out of ten times on a neutral field.  We should be rooting for the 49ers next week, but like Doug, I don’t see a first-year starting QB going into Foxboro and winning.  In any event, the Broncos need to keep winning out.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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