The Texans face no easy task in Week 15 as they travel to Foxboro for a matchup with the New England Patriots. The Patriots are once again atop the AFC East with a 9-4 record and can clinch the division for a fourth-straight year with a win.
**The Patriots' offense begins and ends with Tom Brady. At the age of 29, Brady still has a large majority of his career in front of him and many more challenges to overcome.This season has provided Brady with one of those challenges. The Patriots continued their thrifty ways by not resigning the two players that caught more balls from Brady than anyone else from 2003-2005, David Givens and Deion Branch.
Not having one main receiver has helped the Patriots during their current four-year dominance of the AFC East, not allowing an opposing team to key on one player and letting Brady use his superb decision-making ability to carve up defenses. Whether it is the wide outs, running backs or tight ends, Brady is making sure they all get in the act.
The leading receiver for the Patriots this season has been tight end Ben Watson. Watson may look (6-3, 252) and block like a tight end, but he plays like a receiver catching anything that's thrown to him and using his immense athletic ability to make plays in the open field. The third-year pro, who has 49 catches and 645 yards, is making the Patriots look smart for using a first-round pick on him in 2004. Because the Patriots use many multiple tight end sets, Daniel Graham sees just as much action as Watson. Graham (6-3, 253) is about the same size as Watson, but is seen as a fierce blocker first and a receiver second. In his fifth year, Graham (17 catches, 2 touchdowns) has seventeen career touchdowns and combines with Watson to give the Patriots the best tight end combination in the league.
His nose for the end zone (86 career touchdowns) has made him an invaluable weapon in the Pats' offense. Supplementing Dillon's production has been Maroney, whose open-field explosiveness and ability to catch the ball have made him a duel threat for the Patriots on offense. Whether it be running between the tackles, catching the ball out of the backfield, or returning kicks, Maroney has exceeded any expectations the Patriots may have had for his first year in the NFL (624 yards rushing, 18 catches, 28.7 yards per kick return). A back injury could prevent him from suiting up this week, meaning more time for veteran Kevin Faulk.
Faulk is not the same runner as Maroney, but his 39 catches this season, lead all Patriots backs and offers a good change of pace from Dillon.
On the outside, Brady will line up with any mixture of the following four receivers: Troy Brown, Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney, and Chad Jackson. Brady and Brown have hooked up over 300 times during his career including 35 times this season, showing the 14-year pro still has some juice left.
Although he will probably make a bigger contribution in 2007, he has been able to get in the end zone three times this season.
The Patriots offensive line continues to solidify itself as one of the best in the league. None of the five current starters for the Patriots has made a Pro Bowl, but as long as they are winning games and keeping Brady's jersey clean, it won't bother them. The line consisting of left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, center Dan Koppen, right guard Stephen Neal, right tackle Nick Kaczur, guard/center Russ Hochstein, and rookie tackle Ryan O'Callaghan have paved the way for the league's tenth best offense and allowed only 23 sacks.
Light, the elder statesman, is a grinder who may not be the biggest left tackle in the league (6'4'', 305), but is able to get by on toughness and his experience blocking for prolific passers (Drew Brees at Purdue before Brady). Mankins, the highest draft pick of the crew (1 st round, 2005), may end up being the one that breaks the trend and eventually makes it to the Pro Bowl thanks to his strength in opening holes for Dillon and Maroney. Showing the importance of the offensive line, the Patriots even opened their wallets earlier this season to extend the contract of Dan Koppen, a starter since his rookie season in 2003.
Stopping the Patriots offense isn't easy, but the Dolphins provided the blueprint last week, attacking the line of scrimmage with blitz packages and making sure Jason Taylor was in Brady's face all day. The teams that have had success this season against Brady (Denver, New York Jets, Miami) have succeeded by giving Brady different looks the whole game and not allowing him to sustain a rhythm. If the Texans can confuse the Patriots quarterback, which is not an easy thing to do, they could have some success come Sunday.
**As is always the case with Bill Belichick at the controls, the Patriots defense is ranked among the best in the league. They are ranked third in the league in points allowed, eighth in yards allowed, and despite injuries to safety Rodney Harrison, linebacker Junior Seau and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, remain a force to be reckoned with. The 3-4 scheme employed by Belichick confuses opponents by sending different players after the quarterback and dropping different players into coverage almost every play.
is the perfect player for Belichick's ever-changing schemes because he can play end in a 3-4 alignment and tackle in a 4-3, achieving Pro Bowl status at both positions (four total).
being able to play multiple positions. The line could suffer a major hit this week if defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is unable to go. His large frame (6-2, 325) allows him to engulf multiple offensive linemen allowing his teammates at linebacker to make plays.
The heart of soul of the defense lies with inside linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel. Bruschi has fully recovered from the stroke that jeopardized his career in 2005 to reclaim his spot atop the team leaders in tackles with 91. His fiery demeanor, competitive spirit and knack for making the big play keep Bruschi among the best at his position in his 11 th year.
Due to the season-ending injury of future Hall of Famer Junior Seau, Vrabel has shown, like
, why he is so valuable. Whether it be bouncing between outside and inside linebacker rushing the passer one minute and playing the inside dive the next, playing tight end on offense, dropping back in coverage, or even lining up at end in a 4-3, there are not many more valuable and versatile players in the league than he. Although better suited outside, Vrabel has moved back inside replacing Seau and hoping to continue his stellar season (80 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 interceptions).
On the outside, Roosevelt Colvin is an elite pass-rusher when healthy (6.5 sacks) as he has been this season and Tully-Banta Cain, a career backup thus far, fills the spot vacated by Vrabel.
The biggest revolving door for the Patriots during their six-year reign over the NFL has been the defensive backfield. What started out in 2001 as a group headed by Pro Bowlers Lawyer Milloy and Ty Law has evolved into a patchwork crew of late round draft picks that rely heavily on the pressure and confusion created by the front seven to be successful.
With strong safety Rodney Harrison out for another week and both free safety Eugene Wilson and cornerback Randall Gay out for the year, cornerback Asante Samuel takes the reigns as the best player in the New England secondary. Samuel has seven interceptions this season and 55 tackles, improving in all facets of his game over his time in the league. The four-year veteran may not have the ideal size of a number one cornerback (5-10, 185), but his play during his time in
will certainly garner him heavy attention this offseason in the free agent market.
At the other corner, Ellis Hobbs, who is the usual starter, was benched last week by Belichick, replaced by veteran and former Steeler Chad Scott. Strong safety James Sanders and free safety Artrell Hawkins are doing admirably filling in for their injured counterparts, but they will be steady, not spectacular.
The best way to attack the Patriots defense is to go after their defensive backs. None of the guys back there outside of Samuel are capable of making the big plays that Wilson and Harrison provided. Their third-ranked rush defense will put more pressure on David Carr to create some plays downfield in the passing game. Getting the ball in the hands of Eric Moulds and Andre Johnson and avoiding the pass rush of the Patriots will be essential to the Texans success.
**Much was made this off-season of the separation between the Patriots and the player that made the two most important kicks in team history, Adam Vinatieri. Considered the best clutch kicker in NFL history, the Patriots chose not to place the franchise tag on Vinatieri for a second straight season allowing the Indianapolis Colts to sign him as a free agent. Replacing a player that scores over 100 points in 10 consecutive seasons and connects on 82% of his career field goals is no easy task, but the Patriots brass chose to do so.
Rookie Stephen Gostkowski was chosen in the fourth round of April's draft to fill Vinatieri's large shoes and though he hasn't had the opportunity to kick under the pressure of a Super Bowl crowd, he has done a more than admirable job. He has connected on 76.5% of his field goals, including a 52-yarder, and seems to be gaining more confidence as the weeks go on. Punter Ken Walter has only punted 12 times this season as a late season addition.
In the return game, the Patriots could suffer a huge loss if Maroney is out. He is currently second in the NFL in kick return average and brings an explosiveness and game-breaking ability to the Patriots' special teams. If Maroney can't go, Faulk will handle both kick and punt return duties. While not possessing the speed he once had, the 30-year old veteran is sure-handed and solid, averaging 21.4 yards on 17 kick returns and is sixth in the AFC with 10.5 yards per return on punts. Against opposing teams' return games, the Patriots makeup of hard-nosed players that will do anything for the good of the teams serves them well as veteran special teams ace Larry Izzo leads the way.