The Patriots have won the division for the 10th time in Tom Brady's career, but with four weeks left in the regular season the goal is for New England to now position itself for homefield advantage. As it stands, the Pats (9-3) are second in the conference behind the Texans (11-1), who, incidentally is their next opponent.
But before we get to this week's matchup, let's take a look at the possible playoff scenarios. The rest of New England's schedule looks like this: Houston, San Francisco, at Jacksonville, Miami. Historically, coach Bill Belichick hasn't been one to rest his starters and we don't expect that to change anytime soon, especially with the homefield implications on the line.
Let's assume the Pats go 2-2 over the next month and finish 11-5. That's probably a worst-case scenario. For them to maintain the No. 2 seed (and homefield advantage until a matchup with the Texans should it come to that), the Ravens (9-3 and currently the No. 3 seed) would have to 3-1 in the coming weeks. That could be asking for a lot because they face the Redskins, Broncos, Giants and Bengals.
For now, though, New England is focused on one thing: Houston. The Texans have an explosive offense that starts with running back Arian Foster and includes quarterback Matt Schaub, wideout Andre Johnson and tight end Owen Dainels. And their defense is just as explosive, though it's been slowed recently by injuries.
Either way, this will be a good test to see just where this Pats' team is in early December.
We know what the offense can do, even without tight end Rob Gronkowski. Mostly because of Tom Brady, but also due to the emergence of a running game, thanks to Stevan Ridley. But they'll have to do it against a stout group led by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and featuring second-year defensive lineman JJ Watt.
"Any defense that (Phillips) goes to has always been a big challenge for us or any other team. This one certainly isn't any different," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said on Monday. "This is an aggressive team that plays physical, tough defense."
As for Watt, McDaniels called him "a great player, wherever they line him up" before adding: "They'll move him a little bit, inside, outside. We're going to have to have more than one guy ready to handle him and block him. It won't just fall to the guard or to the tackle," McDaniels explained. "We have to do a great job of trying to simulate his effort, his motor, some of the things that he does to disrupt people in the running game and the passing game." Belichick will also get to glimpse how his defense responds to one of the most efficient offenses in the league. According to Football Outsiders, the Texans rank 9th in passing efficiency and 11th in rushing efficiency. By contrast, the Pats are 23rd against the pass but 7th against the run.
These numbers aren't a surprise, but we expect the pass defense to improve with the addition of cornerback Aqib Talib, and the maturation of rookie Alfonzo Dennard.