As if conditions in Gillette Stadium won't be harsh enough for the visiting Texans, with temperatures expected to be in the 20s and the Patriots installed as 151/2-point favorites, Houston must find a way to crack a New England defense that has been one of the NFL's best over the last two months.
The Patriots allowed four opponents to score 20 or more points in their first nine games and gave up a season high in a 31-24 home loss to Seattle on Nov. 13. Only one opponent has scored 20 or more points during New England's seven-game win streak.
The Patriots went three weeks in the middle of the season without forcing a turnover; 14 of their 23 total takeaways have come in their last six games.
New England applies heavy pressure from the edge — the team has 34 sacks, led by defensive ends Trey Flowers (seven), Jabaal Sheard (five) and Chris Long (four) and outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich (four) — and it has two outstanding cover men in cornerback Malcolm Butler and safety Devin McCourty.
The Patriots will mix coverage schemes and blitzes to confuse Houston quarterback Brock Osweiler, who reclaimed his starting job in the final week of the season and led the Texans past Oakland in the first round.
"They're obviously a team that lines up in different fronts," Houston Coach Bill O'Brien said. "You have a bunch of really tough, hard-nosed players that are very well coached, so their scheme presents a problem too."
The Texans are no slouches on defense. They allowed an NFL-low 301.3 total yards and 17 first downs a game this season, and their 201.6 yards passing allowed a game was the second best in the league.
End Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft, had an interception in his first playoff game last week and has four tackles for loss, three sacks and a forced fumble in his last four games. Linebacker Whitney Mercilus had two sacks and three tackles for loss in last week's win over the Raiders.
But the Texans couldn't slow a Tom Brady-less offense in a 27-0 loss to New England on Sept. 22, so few give them much of a chance with Brady — who served a four-game "Deflategate" suspension to start the season — under center.
Third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett started against Houston.
Brady has 22 career playoff wins, most for a quarterback in NFL history, and is the postseason leader in completions (738), attempts (1,183), passing yards (7,957) and touchdown passes (56).
"It's a great opportunity going against in my opinion the greatest quarterback of all time," Houston cornerback A.J. Bouye said. "You've got to be prepared, at your best … he has great weapons around him."
By the numbers
How teams compare statistically. All stats are per-game averages, except for sacks and turnover differential, which are for the season (league rank in parentheses):
Category | Houston | New England
Points scored | 17.4 (T28) | 27.6 (3)
Points allowed | 20.5 (11) | 15.6 (1)
Pass offense | 198.5 (29) | 269.3 (4)
Rush offense | 116.2 (8) | 117.0 (7)
Pass defense | 201.6 (2) | 237.9 (12)
Rush defense | 99.7 (12) | 88.6 (T3)
Sacks | 32 (T21) | 34 (T16)
Penalty yards | 54.2 (13) | 51.2 (4)
Turnovers | -7 (T26) | +12 (3)
Sam Farmer's pick
The Patriots are rested, and have had an extra week to prepare. The Texans defense will keep them in it for a while, but Houston's offense will give it back too many times.
PATRIOTS 27, TEXANS 17