FOXBOROUGH — On the heels of their first playoff appearance in franchise history, the Houston Texans have been the class of the AFC so far this season, riding a stingy, big-play defense to an 11-1 record.
Pass-swatting defensive end J.J. Watt might be getting most of the attention — for good reason — but it’s the Texans’ talent on the other side of the ball, not to mention Houston’s offensive scheme, that could play a deciding role in Monday’s prime-time showdown with the Patriots at Gillette Stadium.
For all the accolades the Texans’ defense has earned (fourth in the NFL in points allowed, sixth in yards allowed, tied for second in takeaways behind the Patriots), a balanced offense might be even more responsible for the 11-1 start. They’ve already secured a second straight playoff berth, and could clinch the AFC South this weekend, if they beat the Patriots and the Colts lose to Tennessee.
Houston is fourth in the league in total offense; the Patriots are first. Which defense can do a better job slowing the other team’s offense figures to go a long way toward determining Monday’s winner.
After studying up on the Texans’ offense, the Patriots know they’re in for a fight.
“They’re very well-coached and they have a lot of good players — that’s a pretty good combination,” coach Bill Belichick said. “They have a good quarterback, they have good, big receivers, and they have tight ends and a running back that’s still a threat to run the ball.
“You have a lot to cover, so you’re trying to defend everything all the time, and that’s tough. They have great balance, and I think they work hard at that.”
The biggest threats — and biggest names — the Texans have on offense are quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster, and receiver Andre Johnson. Figuring out whom to key on with that three-headed monster is the hard part, because all are capable of leading Houston to a win.
Schaub has stayed healthy, one year after missing the postseason with a concussion. He’s completing almost 65 percent of his passes, and is on pace for another 4,000-yard season, which would be his third in four years.
“He does a lot of different things,” said Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo. “He can also throw on the run. I think his athleticism is underappreciated. But when you watch him on film, he does a lot of things with his legs.”
The legs Mayo and his defensive mates will need to watch out for belong to Foster, Mayo’s former teammate at the University of Tennessee who has 1,102 rushing yards and has scored 13 touchdowns on the ground. It’s his third straight 1,000-yard season.
Foster’s physicality — he is 6 feet 1 inch, 228 pounds — and a cohesive offensive line that has remained largely healthy make the Texans a threat to run from any formation, on any play. What they’re really good at, though, is setting up the pass with the run, relying on Schaub’s experience, his strong decision-making, and play-action calls to push the ball downfield, usually involving Johnson (74 receptions, 1,114 yards).
Like the Patriots, the Texans are equipped to move the ball either way, pass or run. Like the Patriots (eighth running, sixth passing), they’re ranked in the top 10 of the league in both offensive categories. Houston is sixth in rushing yards, 10th through the air.
“They definitely make you respect the run and play the run, and you better play it well or they can get a lot of yards in a hurry,” Belichick said. “They combine their play-action passes with the running game and they hit a lot of big plays on that — bootlegs and play-action.”
Some, maybe most, of the teams in the NFL favor one over the other when it comes to passing or running, based on personnel, scheme, and team strength. The Texans are comfortable either way.
“It’s something that we’ve prided ourselves on now for a few years — be a balanced offense, both running the football and throwing it,” Schaub said. “Keeping defenses off balance with our run and pass, keeping our down and distances manageable where we can keep our playbook open to whatever we want to do. It’s been something that’s worked for us.”
For the most part, the Texans don’t attempt to pull off too many surprises on offense.
“This isn’t the most complicated team we’ve ever seen,” said Belichick, “but what they do, they do well.”
The Patriots know what the Texans will likely do. But are they good enough to stop it?
“I think it’s important that your team knows it can win a lot of ways,” said coach Gary Kubiak, who is 58-50 in his seventh season with the Texans. “I think if you’re locked into, ‘This is how we win, this is our only strength,’ I think those things catch up with you.
“We obviously would like to be a balanced football team. Everything we do starts with us running the ball. But we’ve been caught in some shootouts where we’ve had to go out there and throw it 55, 60 times, too, so I don’t think you ever know what type of game you’re going to get in.
“But I think it’s important that your team is confident they can win all kinds of games.”
The Texans have done that, winning low-scoring (13-6 over the Bears) and high-scoring (43-37 over the Jaguars) games. They seem to be hitting their stride on offense, piling up 332, 501, and 653 yards in their last three games, in which they’ve averaged 33.7 points.
Like the Patriots, they’ve won six straight games.
“They’ve been in some blowouts, they’ve been in some tough games, they’ve been in overtime,” said Patriots defensive line standout Vince Wilfork. “This team has played through it all, and they seem to rally around one another.
“That’s the sign of a great team, and they definitely have what it takes to be a champion, so you have to respect that.”
How best to slow it, though? That’s maybe the biggest question heading into one of the Patriots’ biggest games of the season.