The Texans (6-6) host the Patriots (10-2) on Sunday Night Football at NRG Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. CT, and here are five key storylines to follow in the prime time matchup.
1. 1 hand, no problem- J.J. Watt has a broken left hand, but he said he'll play. The defensive end suffered the injury on Wednesday at practice, but he told the media on Thursday that he'll be ready to
"People are going to try to make a big deal out of this but I've played with worse than this before, even in this season," Watt said. "This, I'm not very worried about it. My elbow a couple years back was way more painful."
With an NFL-best 13.5 sacks, 24 tackles for loss and 42 quarterback hits, Watt has a profound impact on opposing offenses. Last week against the Bills, he was routinely double-teamed and often triple-teamed by blockers. New England head coach Bill Belichick paid Watt high praise and compared him to Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor.
"Watt's a major force," Belichick said. "There have been very few players I would put in the same conversation with Taylor but I would put Watt there. Now it's early in his career and he's done a lot
already, Taylor did it over a long period of time, but Watt's done it pretty consistently now. He's that same kind of player."
How the Patriots block Watt, and whether or not they attack the Texans defense horizontally with quick passes is a key aspect to watch.
2. Clowney comin'- Jadeveon Clowney benefitted last week from the attention paid to Watt, and was frequently in the Bills' backfield. The second-year linebacker had the best game of his young NFL career last Sunday at Buffalo, finishing with a sack, two tackles for a loss and three tackles total.
Sunday with Tom Brady at quarterback, the challenge is a much different one than he and the Texans faced in Buffalo.
"I'm looking forward to this game," Clowney said. "Growing up, I watched him. I've been telling people, I'm going to get to play Tom Brady this week. I watched him all my life. I'm just going to go out, try to compete and make plays on him."
3. Run/Keepaway- Pass rushers like Watt and Clowney are both key ingredients to stopping Brady and the New England offense.
Another could be the Texans' run game.
By burning time off the clock and keeping the ball away from Brady and company, the Texans would do themselves a big favor. That's the goal every week, but it becomes even more important when facing the future Hall of Famer.
Houston's gained over 100 yards on the ground in each of the last three games. Running backs Chris Polk and Jonathan Grimes have averaged a combined 4.8 yards per carry in that three game stretch, and offensive coordinator George Godsey explained their success.
"They're effective at what their role is," Godsey said. "I think their role is increasing, and everybody, we're trying to increase everybody's role at this point in the season."
4. Covering Gronk-Rob Gronkowski is a weapon for the Patriots. He missed last Sunday's game against
the Eagles because of a knee injury he suffered the week before at Denver. But he practiced on Thursday and Friday in Foxboro.
With 63 touchdown catches in his career, Gronkowski is tied for 12th among active players in that category. He's 26 years old. Roddy White, with whom he's tied, and the other 10 players on that list are all 30 years of age or older. He's been a favorite target of Brady's, and the Texans are preparing as if he'll suit up on Sunday.
"You have to allocate some resources to him because Tom likes him, Tom trusts him and when he is there, Tom goes to him," defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. "If we can take him away or slow him down, that will be a plus for us. If he is there, we have to do something about him."
So far in 2015, Gronkowski's caught nine touchdowns, has 931 receiving yards and is averaging 16.3 yards per catch.
5. Chess match-The connections abound between these two franchises. O'Brien, Crennel and Godsey
were all assistants under Belichick. Linebackers coach Mike Vrabel, defensive line assistant Anthony Pleasant and defensive lineman Vince Wilfork and Hoyer each played under Belichick.
The Texans know quite a bit about Sunday's opponent, but none have said it will give them any sort of advantage.
"It's a different team," Hoyer said. "There's a few players that were there when I played, especially defensively. But for the most part, there's a lot of new guys there that I never had a chance to play against, practice against, etc."
Wilfork also downplayed any connection or knowledge that might give him and the Texans an advantage.
"I don't think it will have any bearing on this game because they change so much," Wilfork said. "Even looking at them on film, they do a lot of things different than when I was there and that was just last year."