The Texans (1-3) host the Patriots (1-3) on Sunday. The Week 5 matchup pits a pair of teams with rookies starting at quarterback. Since the start of 2009, the two franchises have played each other once a season, every year except for 2010, 2011 and 2014. Here are five things to watch when they kick off at Noon CT inside NRG Stadium.
1) Mills Rebound – After a tough day at the office in Buffalo last Sunday, QB Davis Mills and the offense are looking to bounce back. Mills was picked off four times, sacked thrice and mustered 87 passing yards in the 40-0 defeat. Despite that shaky performance, Head Coach David Culley explained how there's nothing at all shaky about Mills' outlook this week. Or ever.
"You can't scare this kid," Culley said. "You can't scare him. Most rookies going through what he went through on Sunday, you would be really concerned, but I'm not concerned. I see the same look in his eyes. He comes and prepares the same way, we've sat down, and we've talked one on one on what we need from you, what's expected from you for us to move forward and for us to have a chance to get this offense to where it needs to be."
Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick called Mills a "very talented player" and described what he's seen from the first-year pro.
"Like any rookie quarterback, he's learning all the time," Belichick said. "But I think you see a good talent level and a good ability to make the throws, and I think they're doing a good job of trying to bring him along."
After last Sunday's struggles, Mills pinpointed what he must do a better job of this Sunday and beyond.
"I think the biggest thing from last week is just emphasizing protecting the football," Mills said. "I thought I might have forced a throw or two that obviously didn't end up well. Just being consistent with making smart decisions and putting the team in the best place to win the game is my job, and that's what I need to keep focusing on."
2) Recharge the Run Game – The Texans' continue to struggle on the ground, as the running backs picked up an average of 2.7 yards per carry last Sunday in Buffalo. They've not had much success rushing the ball since their Week 1 win over the Jags, and Culley described the main reason for those woes.
"We've got to quit getting penalties," Culley said. "If we start to be more consistent and not get in those things and get behind the sticks, that we can do what we did the first game-and-a-half of being able to be effective running the ball."
WR Brandin Cooks, though, was quick to point out that the entire unit needs to play better.
"As an offense as a whole, we just got to get going," Cooks said. "Sometimes the run game isn't there, and you got to do what you got to do. Sometimes the pass game is not there. So, we just got to bring one another up when one of those areas is not there."
The Patriots defense has given up an average of four yards per carry, which is tied for the 10th best mark in the NFL.
3) Mess with Mac – QB Mac Jones has been the starter under center for New England, and the Alabama product has completed 70 percent of his passes this season for 1,012 yards. He's tossed four touchdown passes but also been picked off four times. DB Justin Reid believes the Patriots will take a distinct approach to the passing game this week with the rookie.
"I'm sure they want to make quick throws, keep his confidence level high," Reid said. "He did a tremendous job, in my opinion, against the Buccaneers, the game that they came off of. So that game is just dink and dunks, I don't think it will kill you."
Defensive Coordinator Lovie Smith continues to preach the importance of getting takeaways. Against the Bills, the Texans stripped the ball twice, but those fumbles were recovered by Buffalo. Smith also said the Texans should've come away with a pair of interceptions as well. Rattling the rookie quarterback could help Houston get some takeaways, but in all, Smith was very complimentary of Jones.
"He can make all the throws," Smith said. "I'm told he's a smart player. His play, just watching on video, says that. He's running their offense and running it well, and it'll be a good challenge for us."
4) Be Disruptive on D-line – The Patriots had a tumultuous week in their offensive line room, as T Trent Brown didn't practice Wednesday or Thursday because of a calf injury, and RG Shaq Mason missed both those days with an abdomen injury. The starters on the left side, T Isaiah Wynn and G Mike Onwenu were on the Reserve/COVID-19 list and didn't practice either. With so many moving parts, the Texans defensive front has the chance to take advantage, but Smith's preparing for the Patriots' best, nonetheless.
"We go into the game plan looking more at them being at their strength, as strong as they can be, this is what we're going to be dealing with," Smith said. "I'm, of course, familiar with a couple of their linemen being placed on the COVID-19 List and all of that, but we're just assuming they're going to be at full strength when they come in here, and if they're not, fine, but our game plan is more around that."
Jones has been sacked 10 times through the season's first four games. The Texans, meanwhile, have dropped opposing quarterbacks for a sack seven times in the season's first four contests.
5) Familiar Faces – There are several former Patriots currently in Houston. Cooks and fellow WR Danny Amendola were once in New England. After missing the last two games with a hamstring injury, Amendola was back at practice this week and should be a welcome addition to the offense. Cooks has been the Texans top receiver this season and last and a favorite target for the Texans quarterbacks.
Belichick has a lot of respect for Cooks, who caught 65 passes for 1,082 yards in 2017 with New England.
"He's dangerous on everything," Belichick said. "Obviously, has tremendous speed. Great deep ballplayer. Super competitive, tough kid. Runs the intermediate routes. A catch-and-run player. Quick screens. Underneath routes. He gets a step on a guy, and he can turn a five-yard gain into 20 in a hurry, so we've got to do a good job on him, but he's certainly a guy that's going to take the top off the defense, and if you've got too many guys on him, then that creates a lot of space for everybody else. He's certainly a go-to guy for them in the passing game. We've got to do a good job on him."
OL Marcus Cannon spent a decade with the Patriots, and DB Terrence Brooks played there the previous two seasons.
The Texans will host the New England Patriots in Week 5. Sunday's kickoff is set for noon CT. Click here for tickets.
The Houston Texans roster in photos.