When: Monday, 8:30 p.m.
Where: Gillette Stadium
TV, radio: ESPN, Ch. 5, 98.5 FM
When the Patriots run
New England’s ground game struggled early against the Dolphins last Sunday but came to life late when it really counted. It’ll be more tough sledding in this one as the Texans are stout against the run, and it starts with underrated nose tackle Shaun Cody. The 6-foot-4-inch, 307-pound Cody is quick off the snap and uses his strength and athleticism to angle linemen out of their comfort zones and give enthusiastic linebackers Connor Barth and Whitney Mercilus (a great name for a linebacker) clear paths to the ballcarrier. J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith are exceptional at setting the edge and keeping runners contained. The Patriots need to use all their backs to wear down the Texans. Stevan Ridley (5-11, 220 pounds) has shown excellent vision and lively legs this season. He is clearly the type of player who thrives on a heavy workload and contact. Brandon Bolden (5-11, 220) is back from suspension and his high-energy, bruising style will come in handy. If nothing else, he should be fresh. Shane Vereen has a quick first step and good vision and acceleration. He lacks power, however. Danny Woodhead lacks size, but his quickness and instincts make him a solid threat in small doses. Ryan Wendell continues to do yeoman’s work at center, especially considering he never knows who will be lining up next to him. Wendell is quick and smart and plays to the whistle — a trait he no doubt picked up from Logan Mankins.
Rushing yards per game
New England offense: 140.8 (Eighth)
Houston defense: 87.6 (Second)
When the Patriots pass
Much has been made of J.J. Watt’s emergence as the top defensive end in the NFL. And deservedly so. The 6-foot-5-inch, 295-pound Watt has tremendous size and explosiveness and an impressive wing span. Watt is very smart, reads formations quickly, and is equally adept at shedding blockers and swatting passes. He has elite closing speed and his hits hurt — a lot. Also, Bill Belichick thinks Watt, in just his second season, is the defensive player of the year. Tom Brady will need to be at his quick-thinking, distributing best to counter Watt. Luckily, Brady has the weapons. Wes Welker gets the job done with a nifty blend of quickness and toughness. Welker has dropped 10 passes this season, but he’d have to drop a lot more than that before Brady would give up on him. There’s still nobody you’d rather throw to on a key third down. All-purpose tight end Aaron Hernandez has the versatility and athleticism to line up everywhere. He’s speedy, has soft hands, and will fight for every inch — sometimes to a fault. There’s no need to risk injury or a turnover for 1 extra yard, unless you’re at the goal line. Brandon Lloyd should get more targets with Julian Edelman out. Lloyd has exceptional body control and can stretch the field, but he may have the quietest 50 catches in NFL history. Donte’ Stallworth has great speed and a familiarity with this offense. Houston’s secondary will struggle.
Passing yards per game
New England offense: 285.5 (Sixth)
Houston defense: 235.0 (19th)
When the Texans run
Arian Foster has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in three straight seasons and yet he still may be one of the league’s more underrated players. The 6-foot-1-inch, 228-pounder is a muscular back with excellent vision and patience. He can thump between the tackles — he hits creases quickly and with authority — though his upright running style does leave him vulnerable to big hits. If he doesn’t get low, linebacker Brandon Spikes will rattle Foster’s teeth at least once. Foster does have the speed to get outside and he’s especially adept at finding cutback lanes and turning broken plays into solid gains. Foster appears to glide at times and won’t break a ton of tackles. Ben Tate is a big, strong runner who keeps his shoulders square and will rip off big chunks of yardage. He has a tendency to dance too much (think Laurence Maroney) and in the NFL, happy feet lead to unhappy coaches. Look for Foster and Tate to run left behind tackle Duane Brown (he delivers a stunning initial wallop) and guard Wade Smith (he’s agile and mobile). Center Chris Myers is smart, swift, and strong. Disruptive and destructive tackle Vince Wilfork (6-2, 325 pounds — ha!) leads the Patriots run defense. He teams with Kyle Love (would it be silly to call him mini-Vince at 6-1, 315 pounds?) to sling around offensive linemen and create space for heat-seeking linebackers Jerod Mayo and Spikes.Continued...