The Texans (7-4) host the Patriots (10-1) on Sunday Night Football in Houston. It's the first meeting between the two squads in Houston since 2015. Here are five things to watch when they kick off at 7:20 p.m. CT inside NRG Stadium. First Glance is presented by First Community Credit Union.
1) Fuller impact – The Patriots haven't faced the Texans with Will Fuller V since the receiver was a rookie in 2016. He was catching passes then from Brock Osweiler. With quarterback Deshaun Watson, Fuller has 86 catches for 1,372 yards and 14 touchdowns in 19 games played together.
That's good for an average of 16 yards per catch, and it's given the Texans an element of their offense that changes the way opposing defenses play. Just last week in the win over the Colts, Fuller went deep for receptions of 51 and 44 yards, and then helped close out the game with a clutch catch of 15 yards in a 3rd-and-6 situation late in the game.
"Each year he's in the League, he's running more and more routes," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. "Early on, everyone knew that he could go deep. It's something that we've got to be aware of."
Through eight games this year, Fuller has 41 catches for 590 yards and three scores. His return to the offense last week was a welcome one for head coach Bill O'Brien.
"Deshaun has a lot of trust in Will," O'Brien said. "The throw that Deshaun made to Will on the 51-yard reception, that was incredible route and throw. So, those guys have a lot of trust in each other and Will is a big part of this offense when he's out there."
2) Changed faces – The last time these two teams played, it was Week 1 of the 2018 regular season. Only two faces on the offensive line then—center Nick Martin and right guard Zach Fulton—are still with the team. There are three new starters, including left tackle Laremy Tunsil, up front for Houston.
Tight end Derek Fells, receiver Kenny Stills and running backs Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson are also there.
As mentioned above, Fuller missed that contest in Foxboro, and will suit up for Houston.
The arsenal on offense is stocked well for Watson, and they can hopefully tax the Patriots defense.
"It's a very difficult offense to defend," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. "They have so many weapons. The Texans run the ball well, their offensive line has improved greatly from where it was a year ago and through the course of the season. Hyde's a problem, Johnson's a problem, Watson's a problem because he's used some in the running game and the play-action game as well."
But the Patriots defense is humming along at an historical clip. They're tops in the NFL in fewest points allowed per game (10.6), third down percentage (18.94) and red zone percentage (40) and are second in the League in yards per game allowed (256.4) and passing yards per game allowed (158.0).
"They're very disciplined, they're very well coached," Texans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said. "They play hard to the echo of the whistle, all 11 of them, and they're very opportunistic. They take advantage of your mistakes."
3) Watson's 3*rd*look – The first two times Watson saw the Pats were in starts two and seven of his young NFL career. Sunday night will be start 34 for the third-year signal-caller.
Watson said his "knowledge of the game, knowledge of the system, leadership," have improved since September of 2018, and Belichick and the Patriots explained how their hands will be full.
"He's a very accurate downfield passer, he's made some great throws on double-moves, seam routes, post patterns, go routes, things like that," Belichick said. "And of course, we all know he's a very athletic guy with the ball in his hands. So, [he is] dangerous, can score from anywhere at any time, doesn't take long. It'll be a big challenge for us for 60 minutes, but even with a few seconds to go, it's a long way from – any game's a long way from being over if he has his hands on the ball.
Watson's tossed 20 touchdowns and been picked off seven times, completing 69 percent of his passes for 2,899 yards.
4) Get clean – Over the last six games, the Texans have turned the ball over more than they've taken it away in four of those contests. In that span, they're minus-2 in turnover differential, and on the year, they're even. That even mark has them tied for 14th in the NFL.
Compare that with the Patriots, who are plus-19, which is best in the League and nine better than the next closest team.
O'Brien this week, gave a historical perspective on what the Pats have done in that realm this century.
"Since 2001, they are plus-208 in the turnover-takeaway battle," O'Brien said. "They have 200 more takeaways since 2001 than their opponent. They've taken care of the ball, they take the ball away. Since 2001 when they win the turnover battle, they're 154-13. So, you're talking about a team that whatever type of team they have, whether they have this type of team or that type of team, however you guys would observe their team, they're fundamentally – they do things right all the time."
5) Brady's Brady – A constant under center for the last two decades in New England, Tom Brady comes to town with 15 touchdown passes and five picks, and he's completed 62 percent of his passes for 2,942 yards. He's been sacked 18 times this season, and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus described what the Texans defense must do against number 12.
"Biggest thing is just taking away some of his weapons," Mercilus said. "Just working: the rush and coverage have to work in combination to get there."
In 10 career games (regular and postseason combined) against the Texans, he's thrown 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions, with over 2,800 yards. His Patriots have won nine of those contests.
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, though, said Brady is different now than he has been in the past, and pinpointed exactly how.
"His experience that he's gained over the years, that shows up," Crennel said. "He knows what the defense is in, what they're trying to do, what they're playing, and then he knows how to attack it."