FOXBORO -- When the Texans came to Gillette Stadium for the first time last season -- varsity lettermen jackets and all -- they were 11-1 and in first place in the AFC South. Since then, they've won four times. Twice at the end of last season, including a Wild Card Round win over the Bengals, and twice this season.
Though their record sits at just 2-9, Patriots coach Bill Belichick insists that this year's Texans team looks very similar to the one that rode into Foxboro about a year ago. Believe him or not, he's said it several times already this week, and he reiterated the point on Wednesday.
"We’ve had three games against them in a pretty short amount of time," Belichick said, referring to last season's Divisional Round playoff win over Houston, 41-28. "From two at the end of last year and then here we are. Going back and looking at those games and looking at the Texans this year, I really see a lot of similarities."
He added: "A lot of good football players, again a team that looks very much like the team we saw last year in December and January. I know the record is different but when you look at the film, I see a very similar-looking team."
One big reason Belichick sees what he does? The Texans had the best defensive player in the league last year, and he's still there.
JJ Watt is having another ridiculously productive season on the Houston defensive line. According to Pro Football Focus, he has hurried, knocked down or sacked an opposing quarterback 61 times, which is tops in the league among those at his position. He already has 9.5 sacks and 46 tackles.
He's not quite the disruptive force he was last season in terms of swatting pass attempts -- last year he finished with 16 passes defensed -- but at 6-foot-5, 290 pounds with a motor that never stops running, he's still a threat in that aspect of the game as well. He has four passes defensed so far this season.
Even Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones, who is spending this week analyzing the Texans offense, had words of praise for Watt's abilities on Wednesday.
"JJ Watt is a great player," Jones said. "I watched him when he was in college. He's a great player. He has great moves inside and outside, and he's fun to watch."
Easy for him to say.
The Patriots offensive line knows it will face one of its toughest challenges of the year on Sunday. And not only because they'll see Watt. Houston's other defensive end in its 3-4 scheme is not to be forgotten. Ten-year veteran Antonio Smith has been extremely effective in his own right, compiling five sacks and generating pressure on the quarterback 30 times, according to PFF, fifth most in the league among 3-4 defensive ends.
In two meetings with the Patriots last season, Watt and Smith combined for 10 tackles, seven quarterback hits and half a sack.
"They're right at the top in terms of defensive linemen," Patriots guard Logan Mankins said. "They're both very good. They both have good size, very good quickness, good rush moves, good up against the run, and they both play with a ton of effort. They're both high-energy guys and they're relentless to the ball. A lot of their plays come off of that because they just don't stop."