Patriots will host Texans in Divisional Round game on Jan. 14

Patriots will host Texans in Divisional Round game on Jan. 14

When the Dolphins were trampled by Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell and the Steelers on Sunday afternoon, it guaranteed that the Patriots would host the Texans at Gillette Stadium next weekend.

The Divisional Round game in Foxboro will be held at 8:15 p.m. on Saturday. The Steelers advanced to play the Chiefs in Kansas City on Sunday at 1:05 p.m.

This will be Houston's second trip to New England this season, and head coach Bill O'Brien, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, linebackers coach Mike Vrabel, special teams coach Larry Izzo and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork will be hoping their next visit to the place they once called home goes better than the last time.

Back in Week 3, the Texans fell to the Patriots, 27-0, but this game will feature a much different look -- at least on the host's side of things. 

At that point in the season, Patriots rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett had taken over for Jimmy Garoppolo (shoulder injury) and Jamie Collins was still one of the centerpieces of Bill Belichick's defense. After the game, Brissett got his first game ball as a pro. Two weeks later, Tom Brady returned from his four-game suspension and went on to earn MVP consideration, setting an NFL record with his touchdown-to-interception ratio (28-to-2).

The Texans are a group that has undergone significant change since September as well. Since their last meeting the Patriots, they've benched quarterback Brock Osweiler, made Tom Savage their starter, then were forced to go back to Osweiler when Savage suffered a concussion in Week 17. 

Here are some quick-hit thoughts on the Texans-Patriots matchup can now zero-in on their next opponent . . .

Patriots open as heavy favorites: This comes as no surprise. Regardless of which team was going to be headed to Foxboro -- Oakland, Houston or Miami -- the Patriots were going to be listed as the heavy favorites. But an initial look at the lines serves as an indicator of just how far apart these teams are considered to be. According to Sportsbook.ag, the Patriots are 16-point favorites.

Osweiler turns in turnover-free Wild Card Round: Osweiler's performance after signing a deal for $72 million this offseason has been . . . uninspiring. And that's putting it kindly. Among signal-callers who played at least 25 percent of their team's snaps, Osweiler graded out as No. 36 out of 36, per Pro Football Focus. The only quarterback from that group with fewer yards-per-attempt than Osweiler (5.8) was Rams rookie Jared Goff (5.3). Osweiler was, however, able to take care of the football against Oakland's below-average defense in the Wild Card Round. He was not intercepted, and while he fumbled once, the Texans were able to recover. If Houston is to have any chance at moving on, they'll need to make sure their quarterback does not give the Patriots extra opportunities by turning it over.

Wilfork headed back to where it all started: Will Wilfork's career end where it began? The 35-year-old defensive tackle recently acknowledged that he's considering retirement, which means there is a very good possibility that he plays his final game in the stadium where he spent 11 years of his career. Wilfork played well in 36 snaps against the Raiders, helping to bottle up Oakland's running attack with Latavius Murray.

Texans pass-rush a problem: Every week, Belichick finds several facets of his opponent's game to praise during his press conferences. This upcoming week, it would be a safe bet for the Patriots head coach to laud the Texans pass-rush over and over again. Even without JJ Watt (who's on injured reserve after undergoing back surgery) to attract attention, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus provide good burst off the edges of Houston's front. Clowney batted two passes against the Raiders and intercepted one, while Mercilus recorded a pair of sacks in the win. A good test awaits Patriots tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon.

Gronk 'taking all positives' out of new preseason approach

Gronk 'taking all positives' out of new preseason approach

For the first time since 2012, Rob Gronkowski played in a preseason game. It was uneventful, much like a majority of this training camp for the Patriots tight end. No touches, no seismic collisions, and no problems in 14 snaps. Was it worth it? Gronk says yes.

“I just felt the benefit when I was out there; the speed of the game, live game speed. It’s been a while for me,” he said. “I felt the benefit of getting in sync blocking-wise, the cadence and everything like that. I’m taking all positives out of it.”

But this isn’t even remotely following the plan over these last handful of seasons. The Pats have treated Gronk differently than just about everyone else. He wasn’t required to play in these games in August. Heck, there were times when his presence in practice wasn’t mandatory. Gronk had his own set of rules. This approach surely isn’t that.

“No matter what it is, preseason,” said Gronkowski. “I’ll be ready to play 60 minutes. The past has been the past, but it was great going out there and getting some work.”

Not exactly enlightening, but were you expecting something else?  Unless we’re getting a joint statement from Gronk INC and the Pats brass, that’s usually how these press briefings go, mixed in with the occasionally goofy Gronkowski. Yes, we got that too when Gronk was asked who would win the Floyd Mayweather/Conor McGregor fight.

“We don’t make predictions,” answered Gronkowski, before backing away from the podium, smiling brightly and commending himself for doing a good Bill Belichick imitation. It wasn’t all that, and maybe it wasn’t that funny, but the big fella is always looking to bring a little levity to just about any situation. 

That trend continued as we tried to delve deeper into his newfound relationship with Tom Brady’s body, Alex Guerrero. So much is made of Guerrero’s belief in muscle pliability and hydration, but there’s also that diet, and a cookbook of Brady’s to boot. The quarterback has proclaimed all of those meals to be delicious. Gronkowski gave it mixed reviews, saying some of the dishes were “kind of hard to eat” although others got the seal of approval: “they’re really, really good.”  Gronk also made sure to clarify that giving up booze in-season is the norm. 

“I don’t do that stuff right now,” he said. “It’s football time. I’ve never really have done that stuff during football time.”

But that he’s approaching the season differently is clearly a nod to Gronk’s football mortality, and the desire to wring out more than just a couple more years from his battered body. He believes Guerrero’s methods are paying dividends, though again, he wouldn’t elaborate how or compare this season to previous ones.

“It’s hard to say because I couldn’t tell you how I felt in the middle of August every single year,” said Gronkowski. “It’s always a new year, and they all blend together, and now going into my eighth season now, it just feels good to be out there practicing every day with the guys.”

Burkhead not spotted at the start of practice for second consecutive day

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Burkhead not spotted at the start of practice for second consecutive day

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady went into detail on Wednesday as to why it's important for him to play with some of his new teammates during the preseason. Even exhibition games are played at a different speed than practice, he explained, and so to be out there mimicking what will happen Week 1 is critical. Brady even went out of his way to mention Rex Burkhead specifically, saying that it was nice to get Burkhead a touchdown against the Texans last weekend. 

Might Burkhead's preseason reps be limited later this week in Detroit? The former Bengals running back has not been spotted at the beginning of Patriots practices on Tuesday or Wednesday. Injury reports are not released during the preseason, so it will be worth watching pregame Friday whether or not Burkhead is on the field and in uniform. 

Burkhead looked healthy by the end of his time playing in Houston -- his final play was a 22-yard catch-and-run touchdown -- and he spoke to reporters on Monday afternoon. 

Also missing from Wednesday's session were Malcolm Mitchell, Matthew Slater, Matt Lengel, Shea McClellin and Tony Garcia. Undrafted rookies Keionta Davis and Andrew Jelks (NFI) were present but not in uniform for the shells-and-shorts session. 

Mitchell played in New England's preseason matchup with Houston but appeared to tweak his knee during one of his first snaps on the field. He stayed in the game, but he has not been seen by reporters at either Patriots practice this week.