Patriots

It seems like a golden opportunity to let Mac Jones take some chances when the Patriots face the Texans

New England and Houston have the same record, but the Texans are a bad team and the Patriots have a chance to be good.

Mac Jones and the Patriots are 1-3. .JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

Welcome to Season 10, Episode 5 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.

The Texans should be as familiar to the Patriots as any team outside of the AFC East. The teams are playing for the seventh straight season – and the third straight year in Houston, with the Patriots having lost the last two, including a 27-20 defeat in Week 11 last year.

Curious thing, though: The Texans really aren’t familiar at all, at least in terms of high-profile players.

There is no J.J. Watt or DeAndre Hopkins; both are now doing their thing with undefeated Cardinals. There’s no Andre Johnson or Arian Foster; both offensive cornerstones from the Texans’ best seasons have been retired for a few years now.

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And there is no Deshaun Watson. The star quarterback hasn’t played this season while engulfed in legal troubles that include 22 civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual misconduct.

The Texans do have a fair number of personnel who are familiar to Patriots fans. General manager Nick Caserio, who spent nearly 20 years in increasingly important roles with the Patriots before leaving for the Texans gig in January, has filled out his roster with ex-Patriots, including holdover Brandin Cooks, fellow receiver Danny Amendola, running back Rex Burkhead, lineman Marcus Cannon, and cornerback Terrence Brooks.

Most of these Texans haven’t even earned their letter jackets yet. Because of Watson’s status and a Week 2 injury to replacement-level veteran Tyrod Taylor, the Texans have had to turn to rookie third-round pick Davis Mills at quarterback the last two weeks.

Mills, who had some pre-draft buzz as possibly of interest to the Patriots, struggled mightily in his second start last week, completing just 11 passes and throwing four interceptions without a touchdown in a 40-0 throttling by the Bills. The Patriots’ fourth-ranked pass defense, which held Tom Brady and what Belichick called the “league’s best passing offense” without a touchdown pass in Sunday night’s 19-17 loss to the Bucs, has to be salivating at the thought of playing a quarterback on the opposite end of the experience scale this week.

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The Patriots enter the game coming off an eventful week, from the close loss but satisfying catharsis of Brady’s return to Gillette Stadium, to Wednesday’s trade of accomplished cornerback Stephon Gilmore to the Panthers, to linebacker Jamie Collins’s return for a third stint with the franchise, to Friday’s news that at least two starting offensive lineman (Shaq Mason and Trent Brown) will not play.

The Patriots can’t take a matchup with the Texans for granted – the teams do have the same record at 1-3 – but this does seem like a golden opportunity, presuming that some semblance of a competent offensive line can be patched together, to allow rookie quarterback Mac Jones take a few more chances as he continues to demonstrate his preternatural mastery of the offense.

Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this one started …

Three players I’ll be watching other than the QBs

Brandin Cooks: The speedy receiver was a legitimate weapon during his single season with the Patriots, catching 65 passes (on 114 targets) for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns in 2017. So why does he seem to slip so easily from mind when discussing Brady’s receivers during the second phase of the dynasty? Is it just me? I don’t think it is. Maybe it’s because he was here for just a single season, or maybe it’s that he was a relative afterthought in the biggest game after getting knocked out of the Patriots’ 41-33 loss to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII. But four seasons and two teams later (he spent 2018-19 with the Rams), the 28-year-old with five 1,000-yard seasons to his name remains a dangerous playmaker.

Brandin Cooks (right) is in his eighth NFL season.

In fact, the Texans seem to realize he’s their only playmaker. Through four games, he’s caught 28 passes on 39 targets, which puts him on a pace of 119 receptions and 166 targets. Cooks enters Sunday sixth in the NFL in receiving yards, an impressive feat given the Texans’ quarterback situation and the absence of other high-end pass-catching threats. It’s not a mystery who the Patriots’ defense must focus on, and given that the rookie Mills will be tempted to force the ball in his direction, this could be a Sunday where J.C. Jackson climbs another rung on the Patriots’ list of all-time interceptions leaders.

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Jakobi Meyers: All right, this is getting weird. Meyers has been targeted 41 times this season – yep, even more than the Texans’ Cooks – and has 27 catches for 246 yards, including 17 receptions for 164 yards over the past two games. He now has 112 catches in his career, including 59 for 729 yards in his breakout 2020 season. The Patriots’ receiving corps has been flashing some promise lately – Kendrick Bourne looks like a genuinely savvy signing – but Meyers is clearly the most reliable of the lot. So isn’t it about time he caught his first career touchdown pass?

It’s crazy given his importance to this offense that he hasn’t broken the seal of the end zone once in his Patriots career. Meyers has two touchdown passes – against the Ravens and Jets last season – and he completed a pair of passes for 45 yards against the Bucs, giving him the highest QB rating in the game (118.7). He has such an impressive arm that it might be wise for Josh McDaniels to let him throw more often. But the first priority: Get this guy a receiving touchdown. He’s earned it, and he’s overdue.

Matthew Judon: He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere. The red-sleeve-wearing, havoc-wreaking defensive end has been the most enjoyable player to watch on the Patriots’ this season. He has 4 ½ sacks, all in the last three games, which is just one shy of Chase Winovich’s team-leading 5.5 sacks in ‘20. I’d wager he surpasses that total Sunday against a Texans line that has allowed Mills to be sacked eight times in 75 dropbacks.

Grievance of the week

At some point, it has ceased being a shock when Bill Belichick moves on from a popular player. Cutting Lawyer Milloy before the 2003 opener was a blindside hit for all of us. Trading Deion Branch to the Seahawks (Sept. 2006) and Richard Seymour to the Raiders (Sept. 2009) were bummers, but at least they brought back first-round picks. Randy Moss punched his own ticket back to Minnesota by griping about his role early in the 2010 season. Did anyone, especially Jamie Collins, see the Jamie Collins exile to Cleveland coming at the 2016 trade deadline? Oh, and Jimmy Garoppolo-to-the-Niners a year later, for a mere second-rounder, was underwhelming.

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Now Gilmore is a Panther, for the discounted cost of a 2023 sixth-round pick. Unexpected departures aren’t much of a surprise now. But don’t you wish Belichick would prioritize getting just a little more in return?

Key matchup

Patriots running back Damien Harris vs. the Texans run defense

This was presumed to be the third-year ball carrier’s breakout season, and the trade of former first-round pick and two-time team rushing leader Sony Michel to Rams late in training camp confirmed Harris’s feature-back status.

He had had a couple of electrifying runs, including a 35-yard burst in the opener against the Dolphins and a 26-yarder in Week 3 against the Jets when he busted through so many tackles that if you squinted for a second, you might have thought you were watching a vintage Marshawn Lynch highlight.

Damien Harris (right) ran for 100 yards in the Patriots’ season opener vs. the Dolphins.

Too often, though, he’s been spinning his wheels. He entered the week with 49 carries (21st in the league) for 172 yards (31st), good for a Marion Butts-like 3.5 yards per carry average. His ineffectiveness becomes more obvious when removing the aforementioned two long runs from the equation. In his other 47 carries, he has just 111 yards, a 2.3 yards per carry average. Sixty of his yards came on his first six carries of the season. Against the Buccaneers’ ferocious run defense Sunday, he lost four yards on five carries. Oof.

The good news: The Texans are 28th in the league against the run, with opponents racking up 137 yards per game on the ground. Bills running backs Devin Singletary and Zack Moss split 28 carries evenly last week, gaining a combined 140 yards, and quarterback Josh Allen added another 41 to the Bills’ total of 199.

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Harris is clearly a talented and hard-running back, and if the Patriots’ makeshift offensive line can at least competently run-block, this should be his week to break loose. It wouldn’t be a bad idea, either, to activate rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, who has been stranded at Stevan Ridley’s House of Exiled Fumblers and Roast Beef since losing the ball on one of his two touches in the opener against the Dolphins.

Prediction, or Houston should still be the home of the Oilers

There were a couple of reasons why the Patriots’ loss to the Buccaneers didn’t feel all that much like … well, a loss. It was frustrating in some ways, sure, and fans are only so tolerant of moral victories around here. But there were great reasons to feel good about the performance, and what it might have foretold.

First, the pass defense didn’t let Brady come in and torch it, and you know he would have thrown for 700 yards if he could have.

Second, it was easier to watch the legend come home in the wrong uniform when he ended up being outplayed by the new kid in town. Make no mistake about this: The Patriots have their quarterback. This is the guy. Mac Jones is the present and the future of this team, and if the offensive line somehow can keep him from being folded, spindled, and darned near mutilated, he is going to make more and more plays as his rookie season goes on.

He has been hit way too much already – 34 times, including 10 sacks. That needs to stop, this week, no matter whether Belichick has to pull Jon Morris, Zefross Moss, and Shelby Jordan out of retirement to help the cause, and no matter how shorthanded the line ends up being.

The Texans and Patriots have the same record, but they are not the same. The Texans are a bad team. The Patriots have a chance to be a very good one. They showed it last week in losing to a champion. They need to show it this week against a franchise on the edge of chaos. Patriots 30, Texans 3.

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