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Sunday Night Football Preview: Will the Patriots' Defense Be Too Much for the Texans?

The Houston Texans host the New England Patriots in a battle of AFC elite on Sunday Night Football.

As always, the Patriots are a popular bet, with 72% of the bets and 70% of the money coming in on New England's side of the spread (-3.0), per oddsFire. The moneyline, however, is where we see the money coming in on the Texans, with 53% of the bets and 58% of the money backing Houston on the moneyline (+144). The over/under (46.5) has an interesting split, with 67% of the bets on the under, yet only 52% of the money siding with the under, suggesting some big bets have been placed on the over.

These are two well-known teams with the general betting public, so let's look to see if we can find any hidden edges in our projections.

Passing Game Preview

The Patriots enter Week 13 with a league average passing offense, ranking 14th with 0.12 Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back. After a hot start to the year, Tom Brady has trailed off considerably of late, posting negative Passing NEP per drop back in each of the last three games.

We should probably not judge Brady too harshly based on those performances, however, as he faced the fourth-ranked Baltimore Ravens' defense on the road, played a cold-weather game against an improving Philadelphia Eagles secondary, and played in the cold and rain last week against the Dallas Cowboys. Brady has struggled more on the road this year, recording 0.04 Passing NEP per drop back in six road games, compared to 0.20 Passing NEP per drop back in five home games. But a matchup in a dome against a below-average Texans' secondary should help offset those splits a bit.

Brady should have a healthy receiving corps this week, with Mohamed Sanu questionable with an ankle injury after getting in limited practices during the week and Phillip Dorsett looking likely to play after clearing the concussion protocol. Brady was forced to rely on N'Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers last week, and while they performed admirably in the miserable weather, the offense will certainly see a boost with the return of Sanu and Dorsett. Julian Edelman remains the clear number-one option, and his 112 targets nearly double that of James White (65), the Patriots' second-most targeted pass-catcher.

The Texans enter the week with the 12th worst pass defense in the league, allowing 0.13 Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per drop back. Houston should get Bradley Roby back in the secondary to pair with Johnathan Joseph for a bit of stability, but without J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney rushing the passer anymore, this is a beatable defense. The Texans have struggled at times to cover opposing running backs and tight ends, and receivers who work the middle of the field -- like Keenan Allen and Hunter Renfrow -- have also given them trouble. Roby could help shore up the middle while covering Edelman, so it will be worth watching Roby's status leading up to game-time as well as his health if he's on the field.

The Texans have put up 0.18 Adjusted Passing NEP per drop back in 2019, good for the eighth-best mark in the league. The passing game has been a struggle at times this year, but with Deshaun Watson under center, the Texans are a big play waiting to happen. Watson has a 0.28 Passing NEP per drop back in five home games, compared to a 0.18 Passing NEP per drop back on the road, so he enjoys playing in Houston.

Watson has struggled against upper-level defenses in 2019, however, as he has 0.00 Passing NEP per drop back in his four games against opposing passing defenses ranked in the top 11 of the league, per our metrics. He's been sacked 18 times in those four games, while he has been sacked only 20 times in his other eight games, so keeping Watson upright will be the number-one priority for Houston.

DeAndre Hopkins leads the team with 112 targets, more than double anyone else on the Texans. Will Fuller and Kenny Stills have both been efficient deep threats, with 0.80 and 0.97 Reception NEP per target, respectively, though Fuller takes over now that he is back and healthy. Darren Fells has surprisingly been a solid option at tight end, leading the team with an 88.5% Reception Success Rate and ranking second on the team with 0.86 Reception NEP per target. The Texans have done a poor job incorporating close-range options like Duke Johnson and Keke Coutee, so this offense has primarily used Hopkins first, followed by Fuller (when healthy) in the deep passing game as well as tight ends Fells and Jordan Akins.

The Patriots' defense ranks first in the league allowing -0.27 Adjusted Defensive NEP per drop back, an insane number that is leaps and bounds better than everyone in the league outside of the San Francisco 49ers. New England has only allowed one positive Passing NEP per drop back performance in 2019, and that was in Baltimore against Lamar Jackson. Watson will certainly have his work cut out for him in this one. The Patriots have been a bit up and down with the pass rush, but they did sack Baker Mayfield and Carson Wentz five times each over the past several weeks. Houston will have to keep Watson upright to have a chance in the passing game.

Rushing Game Preview

New England's rushing attack ranks as the eighth-worst in the league and has no doubt been a source of frustration for this squad. Producing -0.05 Adjusted Rushing NEP per carry this year, the Pats have lacked a foundation to help them through occasional struggles from the passing game. The fact that James Develin and Brandon Bolden are the only running backs on the roster that have produced positive Rushing NEP per carry this year is a concern considering they have combined for 16 carries.

Rex Burkhead clocks in at exactly 0.00 Rushing NEP per carry on 38 attempts, while Sony Michel has contributed -0.11 Rushing NEP per carry on 174 rushes. James White has been even worse than Michel on the ground and is really an asset in only the passing game this season. With very few signs of optimism lately, this doesn't look like a rushing attack ready to turn things around any time soon.

Houston ranks as the league's 17th best run defense, allowing 0.01 Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per carry. The last two weeks, the Texans have given up over 150 yards rushing to both the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens, so this is far from a run defense on the rise. Luckily this unit faces a subpar New England ground game, but the Patriots will no doubt test Houston's run D early.

The Texans are surprisingly the league's ninth-ranked rushing attack with 0.05 Adjusted Rushing NEP per carry coming into Week 13. Much of that can be attributed to having a running threat at quarterback, as Watson has lit up opposing defenses on the ground to the tune of 0.44 Rushing NEP per carry on 52 attempts.

The Texans have had a positive, if unexciting, rushing attack otherwise, with Duke Johnson contributing 0.07 Rushing NEP per carry on 65 attempts, while Carlos Hyde has soaked up 174 carries and produced 0.01 Rushing NEP per carry. Hyde has been a zero in the passing game, but Johnson does provide a dual-threat option. With the strength of the Patriots' defense centered around the secondary, look for the Texans to try their hand at running the ball early on in the game.

The Patriots' 11th ranked run defense constitutes as their weakness, allowing -0.04 Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per carry this season. Outside of some good performances against them from the Ravens and Cleveland Browns, however, this is still a good run D. The Texans will likely try to attack this unit by default, as the pass defense is so strong. But this is hardly a smash-spot for the Texans' running game, so we can likely expect more of a volume-driven performance if they do see success.

Historical Comparisons

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