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New England Patriots

It would be hard to have two more polarizing opponents than the Patriots do from last week to this week. On one hand there are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – defending Super Bowl champions with one of the greatest collections of raw talent in recent memory, led by the greatest quarterback of all time. The Patriots go from preparing for them to preparing for the Houston Texans – an organization seemingly lacking any and all direction, plagued with internal turmoil, that has spent the past two seasons parting ways with cornerstone player after cornerstone player.

Houston’s success has been relatively one-dimensional. Both offensively and defensively, there’s seemingly one player making the gears turn. If the Patriots can limit the impact of those two players they should be able to pick up a relatively easy win – offensive line issues aside.

Who do the Patriots need to focus on to get by the Texans on Sunday? Let’s take a closer look in this week’s key matchups…

  • When New England has the ball: Justin Herron vs. Whitney Mercilus

    Over the past two years the Texans have parted ways with a number of the franchise’s iconic players, including DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt, with Deshaun Watson likely not far behind. However, one player that has managed to stay around is left end Whitney Mercilus.

    Mercilus – who has been with Houston since being drafted in the first round in 2012 – has not only managed to hang around, but has been the team’s best defensive player through four games in 2021. His four tackles for a loss, three sacks, and three QB hits lead all Texans defenders.

    There’s still plenty of uncertainty about what the Patriots’ offensive line is going to look like on Sunday, with Isaiah Wynn and Michael Onwenu still on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and Trent Brown and Shaq Mason not practicing. Justin Herron is the most likely candidate to start at right tackle, but whoever fills the role will need to keep Mercilus out of the backfield and off Mac Jones.

  • When Houston has the ball: J.C. Jackson vs. Brandin Cooks

    Houston’s passing offense runs heavily through former Patriots wideout Brandin Cooks. Cooks has 28 of the team’s 69 catches this season, or 40.5 percent. He’s averaging 13.2 yards per reception, and his 369 yards are far and away the most on the team, with tight end Pharaoh Brown in second with 73 yards.

    Cooks projects to be a good test for J.C. Jackson, who was officially anointed the Patriots’ top corner following the Stephon Gilmore trade on Wednesday. While it’s possible the Patriots simply play sides in the secondary, like they did in their 2020 matchup against Houston, there’s nobody else on the Texans’ roster that warrants Jackson’s skill set in coverage.

    In the 2020 meeting, Cooks had four catches for 85 yards. If the Patriots can hold him to similar numbers this time around, they should be in good shape.

  • Bonus: Bill Belichick vs. Davis Mills

    Here we go again – Bill Belichick versus a rookie quarterback, Round 29. On Sunday, third-round pick Davis Mills will become the 24th first-year signal-caller to try and solve Belichick’s puzzle. In his time with the Patriots, Belichick is 22-6 against rookie quarterbacks.

    This will be the second time the Patriots face a rookie quarterback this season. Back in Week 2, they were able to confuse second-overall pick Zach Wilson enough that he threw four interceptions and completed under 50 percent of his passes.

    The Patriots didn’t blitz much in that game, but dropped into coverage and forced Wilson to make the correct reads and throw into tight windows. Could something similar be in store for Mills on Sunday?