In The Know is an ongoing series with the opposing team's beat writer. This week, Ben Volin of the Boston Globe gives insight on the Texans upcoming playoff opponent. *
The Patriots will be hosting a divisional playoff game for the 7th straight year. What's the buzz in New England like, is it any less for a team that is always playing football in January?
Volin: The buzz is that Patriots fans—and probably Patriots themselves—fully expect to get to Houston for the Super Bowl this year and anything less would be a major disappointment. Last season was a major disappointment for the Patriots. They started 10-0, things were going great, and then they really crumbled down the stretch. They got hit by the injury bug, they made some questionable coaching decisions, they lost four of their last six games, really stumbling towards the finish line and ended up losing to Denver in the AFC Championship game.
So I think the entire season for the Patriots has been, 'Let's not fall into the same trappings as last year.' They're certainly taking care of their business; they finished 14-2. They won their final seven games of the season after losing to Seattle back in November. So they're playing pretty well right now even without Rob Gronkowski. They're very healthy.
The Patriots earned a first-round bye for the 11th time since 2001. How does Belichick handle that off time? How much did the extra time help players, especially guys like Danny Amendola and Martellus Bennett.**
Volin: Those are two players (Amendola and Bennett) who definitely will benefit from that time off, Tom Brady as well. Brady has been hobbled a little bit ever since that Seahawks game in early November. He took a shot—I think it was from Kam Chancellor—right to his thigh and knee and he missed a lot of Wednesday practices throughout the second half of the season. So, Tom Brady is actually someone who would benefit from this bye week.
Amendola missed the final four games of the season with an ankle sprain, but the fact they didn't put him on IR gives you a pretty good idea that they think they can get him back for the playoffs. So Amendola, Brady, Malcolm Mitchell is someone who was a bit banged up, Dont'a Hightower. The Patriots have been very fortunate with injuries. They only have three guys on injured reserve this year, and that includes Gronk (Rob Gronkowski), but obviously this time of year everyone is banged up a little bit and you've got nicks and bruises.
It wasn't like Andy Reid and the Chiefs, who, Andy Reid for the bye last week, sent his players home. He said, 'It's Monday. Go enjoy the week and come back next week ready to go.' The Patriots held two practices last week; they probably weren't the most physical. It's more just about working on self-improvement, not so much game planning. But they worked, and they did have a little bye this weekend. Even Belichick went off to Nantucket. There's a photo floating around the Internet of Belichick passed out, napping on the ferry over to Nantucket. So they were able to get a little R&R. But they still practiced last week and they're very focused just because of, like I said, the way that last season ended. It left a very sour taste in all their mouths. You're not going to see any Odell Beckham situations here with the Patriots, with guys jetting off to Miami just a few days before a playoff game. They are very focused on the task at-hand right now."
The Texans didn't face Tom Brady in Week 3, but since his return, he's as good as he's ever been. This year, has thrown just 2 interceptions and his TD/INT ratio was 14.00, the best ever by a QB in a single season. Is it the experience and chemistry of the receivers, what has made him so accurate this year and hard to pick off?
Volin:** Brady has been pretty incredible in the 12 games, as you mentioned. The 28 to 2 touchdown to interception ratio is the best in NFL history. And actually in the four games he missed, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett didn't throw a pick at all. So the Patriots' two interceptions this year set a new NFL record for fewest in a season, and the previous record was five, so they obliterated that. And that's been a huge key to Brady's success—just avoiding the turnovers and avoiding the big mistakes. No one is better than Brady in just living to see another day. Minimizing the bad plays and obviously maximizing the good plays. He knows when to throw the ball away to avoid the sack and even if it's on third down, just avoid the negative play.
Now it's to the point that if he throws a pick, it's just shocking. We didn't think Tom Brady still had that in him to throw interceptions. So at his age 39, and at his experience, he's so good behind the line of scrimmage and before the snap just diagnosing the defense and moving the chess pieces around. He's got the ball completed half the time before the ball is even snapped. He knows where he's going with it.
He obviously takes great care of his body, his nutrition. He moves around better at 39 than he did at 29. He's really good at sliding and shuffling around the pocket and avoiding the pass rush. So when you add that to his mental skills and how he can diagnose defenses before the snaps, it's led to a pretty special quarterback for the Patriots and Tom Brady at age 39 is just having an incredible season. They say that Father Time is going to catch up to him at some point, but he certainly isn't showing it. If he can keep taking care of his body like this, there's no reason he can't keep this going for at least a few more years."
In his 8th year in the NFL, 3rd with the Patriots, LeGarrette Blount has rushed for 1161 yards for 18 TDs. In fact, he's scored all but 1 of the team's rushing touchdowns this year. Was this the vision for Blount to become the Patriots feature back or has he exceeded all expectations this season?
Volin:** He's definitely exceeded expectations in the sense that he wasn't guaranteed anything this year. They signed him to a one-year deal. He's receiving the minimum base salary. They loaded his contract up with incentives, so there's only $100,000 guaranteed. So he still had to make the team coming out of training camp and he showed up to camp in great shape, determined to make the team and make an impact.
The Patriots also have really made it a point to run the football this year. Last year, one of the reasons the season ended so poorly for them was they couldn't run the football at all at the end of the season. Blount and Dion Lewis were both on injured reserve, their offensive line was all banged up and they were very one-dimensional against Denver. So this year, they've really made it a point to be more balanced on offense to run the football.
The offensive line has been great. LeGarrette Blount has been great and his numbers really are a reflection of the opportunity he's been getting. This has been the best balanced run-pass ratio of Bill Belichick and the Patriots of the last decade. They're running the ball I think 45 or 46 percent of the time; last year was only around 39 to 40 percent. So they're just feeding him the ball more. He's a 250-pound running back, pretty hard to bring down this time of year when the weather's cold and inclement.
The Patriots have just really made it a point to run the football and that's really helped them with their play-action passing game as well. So all the credit to LeGarrette Blount for being very motivated this year, but the Patriots have really just stuck to the run game and really tried to make it a big part of their offense.
The Patriots defense is ranked eighth overall but allowed the fewest points in the league (15.6). What makes it so hard to score on this New England defense?
Volin: It's interesting. They are No. 1 in points allowed but if you ask Patriots fans, not too many Patriots fans think they're the best defense in the league. They statistically played the easiest schedule in the NFL. They had the lowest strength of schedule of any team in the league. They did not play many good quarterbacks this year. Russell Wilson beat them and then after that you're looking at Andy Dalton and Ryan Tannehill and probably Brock Osweiler are some of the best quarterbacks they've played. Otherwise it was a lot of Ryan Fitzpatrick's and Bryce Petty's and Jared Goff and Colin Kaepernick, Cleveland Browns. Patriots just had a pretty soft schedule this year.
Now that being said, they traded away Jamie Collins this year mid-season and kind of hit the reset button on the defense, plugging in new pieces like cornerback Eric Rowe, linebacker Kyle Van Noy. They've done a nice job figuring out their personnel the last seven weeks and they've definitely gotten a lot better keeping teams out of the end zone and off the score board. You've got to keep pace with the Patriots in a shootout. You've got to be able to put up 25, 30, 35 points against them.
The Patriots defense has done a nice job of creating turnovers in recent weeks. Malcolm Butler has been a phenomenal cornerback this year. Dont'a Hightower, the leader of the front seven—really the leader of defense; Devin McCourty; they've got three to four Pro-Bowlers, three or four guys who made All-Pro second team. So they're just pretty versatile. They don't have the best pass rush, but they can scheme up some pressure on you with some zone blitzes and some guys who can drop off into coverage and rush the passer. They're pretty flexible on defense and they've just done a good job of figuring out their personnel since that Jamie Collins trade and finding ways to put their guys in the best situation.
*The Texans travel to Gillette Stadium to face the New England Patriots for the AFC Divisional game on Saturday. Kickoff is set for 7:15 p.m. CT on CBS and SportsRadio 610.
Check out the best photos from Wednesday's practice as the Texans prepare for Saturday night's playoff game against the Patriots.