Un­der­dog Tex­ans face big chal­lenge on road

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - SPORTS - By Kyle Hightower

The Hous­ton Tex­ans face an enor­mous chal­lenge against the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots on Satur­day night.

The Tex­ans are 1-7 against the Pa­tri­ots. They are win­less in New Eng­land all time, in­clud­ing a shutout loss ear­lier this sea­son when Tom Brady was out be­cause of a sus­pen­sion.

The Pa­tri­ots en­ter the game as 15 ½-point fa­vorites over the vis­it­ing Tex­ans — just the sixth time since 1966 that a team has been fa­vored by at least 15 points in a play­off game.

In the five pre­vi­ous oc­ca­sions only one un­der­dog — the New York Jets in Joe Na­math’s Su­per Bowl guar­an­tee — won the game.

New Eng­land says it isn’t tak­ing any­thing for granted in the di­vi­sional-round matchup against the NFL’s top-ranked de­fense.

But how does Hous­ton, which lost 27-0 in Week 3 to a Pa­tri­ots team with­out Brady, go about beat­ing a team that is one of the big­gest fa­vorites in play­off his­tory?

“The first thing that jumps out, you have to pro­tect the ball. If you are go­ing to beat the Pa­tri­ots, es­pe­cially in Foxbor­ough, you can’t have any turnovers,” Tex­ans quar­ter­back Brock Osweiler said.

“If you have turnovers, you are giv­ing Tom ad­di­tional chances to score points . ... and that’s never go­ing to be good for your foot­ball team.”

That will be eas­ier said than done against a Pa­tri­ots de­fense that have been cre­at­ing turnovers at a high rate dur­ing their seven-game win streak.

New Eng­land’s de­fense went three straight weeks in the mid­dle of the sea­son with­out forc­ing a turnover, but had 14 of their 23 to­tal take­aways over their fi­nal six games.

The Tex­ans turned it over three times in the first meet­ing. Two of the turnovers — fum­bles on kick­offs — led to 14 points.

But big fa­vorite or not, Pa­tri­ots line­backer Dont’a Hightower said he isn’t af­fected by out­side dis­trac­tions.

“You all don’t have any­thing to do with the game so what you all think doesn’t re­ally mat­ter,” Hightower said. “I mean you all aren’t in be­tween the lines. So, no I’m not re­ally — block­ing out the noise is part of that.”

Here are some other things to watch for in Satur­day’s matchup:

MILLER TIME

Hous­ton RB La­mar Miller re­turned against the Raiders af­ter miss­ing two weeks with an an­kle in­jury. He fin­ished with 73 yards and a touch­down, but was un­happy with his per­for­mance af­ter av­er­ag­ing just 2.4 yards a carry af­ter av­er­ag­ing 4 per run in the reg­u­lar sea­son.

“This past game ... I was kind of rusty for not play­ing the last two weeks,” he said. “I’m just try­ing to get com­fort­able with ev­ery­thing. This week, I’m look­ing for­ward to the chal­lenge.”

Miller is in his first sea­son with the Tex­ans af­ter spend­ing his first four with the Dol­phins. He has been a rare bright spot on a Hous­ton of­fense that has strug­gled to move the ball and fin­ished the reg­u­lar sea­son ranked 10th with 1,073 yards rush­ing.

CLOWNEY’S CON­TRI­BU­TION

De­fen­sive end Jade­veon Clowney’s break­out reg­u­lar sea­son helped Hous­ton’s de­fense not only stay afloat, but it en­tered the play­offs ranked first in the NFL de­spite the loss of su­per­star J.J. Watt to sea­son-end­ing back surgery af­ter just three games. Clowney had 16 tack­les for losses, 17 quar­ter­back hits and six sacks dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, but saved his big­gest play for last week. The top over­all pick in the 2014 draft had his first ca­reer in­ter­cep­tion in the win over the Raiders to set up Hous­ton’s first touch­down in the 27-14 win. Clowney and out­side line­backer Whit­ney Mer­cilus, who had two sacks on Satur­day, talked about build­ing on what they did against the Raiders this week.

“I said: ‘We got to keep do­ing this as long as we’re go­ing to keep win­ning these games. We have to go out here and make plays,”’ Clowney said. “He was like: ‘I know, man, I know.’ This week I told him it’s go­ing to be on us again.”

BLOUNT’S HEALTH

Pa­tri­ots RB LeGar­rette Blount has taken a lot of pres­sure off Brady this sea­son, rush­ing for a New Eng­land sin­gle-sea­son record 18 touch­downs and ca­reer-high 1,161 yards. But he may not be at 100 per­cent af­ter miss­ing two straight days of prac­tice with an ill­ness.

AMEN­DOLA RE­TURNS

Brady’s re­ceiv­ing group is as healthy as it’s been in a long time thanks to the re­turn of Danny Amen­dola to full par­tic­i­pa­tion in prac­tice this week. Amen­dola sat out the fi­nal four reg­u­lar-sea­son games af­ter suf­fer­ing an an­kle in­jury on Dec. 4.

He said he’s had no set­backs since his re­turn.

“The play­offs is what you play for,” Amen­dola said. “It’s why ev­ery­body’s here. It’s what we’ve been wait­ing on all year. And we’re ready to go.”

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