The Patriots have not had the look of a team that’s going to go 15-1 this season.
Yet, at 10-1, they would take a significant step toward that accomplishment Sunday night that if they win at 7-4 Houston.
The Texans, led by their dynamic quarterback Deshaun Watson, represent perhaps New England’s most difficult hurdle the rest of the season. The Patriots do face the Chiefs next week and the Bills in Week 16, but those games are at Gillette Stadium — where they rarely lose, particularly in December.
Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, a Bill Belichick disciple, is seeking his first victory over his mentor, having gone 0-4 since taking over in Houston in 2014. The Texans are 1-10 in the series, including two playoff games.
“Obviously we’ve struggled against the Patriots in past years, but this is a different year,’’ O’Brien told reporters during the week. “Every year’s different. Our team’s different, their team’s a little bit different, and we just have to go out there and we’ve got to play a clean game.’’
This always has been a key to the Patriots’ success — playing clean and mistake-free and letting their opponents beat themselves.
The key for the Texans is Watson, who’ll face a New England defense that is allowing the second-fewest yards in the NFL and has produced a league-high 20 interceptions.
During the week, Belichick was effusive with his praise for Watson and receiver DeAndre Hopkins in particular. Watson is completing 69 percent of his passes with 20 touchdowns and just seven interceptions and a 103.4 rating. He, too, has rushed for 301 yards and five TDs.
“Deshaun’s a very talented player, certainly one of the top players in the league at his position that we’ve faced,’’ Belichick told reporters. “[He] does a great job on the deep ball, has very good touch and accuracy, is a good decision maker, obviously very athletic kid that can do a lot. Any game’s a long way from being over if he has his hands on the ball.’’
Watson has played some of his best football in prime-time games, having thrown 18 TDs and just three INTs in seven career night games.
Though Hopkins leads the Texans with 81 receptions and six TDs, the Texans’ hottest receiver is Will Fuller, who missed three games with a hamstring injury. He has 357 receiving yards with three TDs in his past two games and is averaging 14.4 yards per catch.
A potential problem area for Houston is in its pass defense, which could help Patriots quarterback Tom Brady get New England’s sputtering offense untracked.
The Texans allow an average of 260 passing yards per game through the air, which ranks 25th in the NFL. They have just just five INTs, which is 30th in the league, and 22 sacks (28th in sacks per pass play).
The Patriots are the only AFC team that can clinch a playoff berth this week — needing a win over Houston combined with a loss or tie by Pittsburgh or Oakland, or a tie and a combination of losses by a group of teams.