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.

Patriots host free agents Skuta, Fusco

Patriots host free agents Skuta, Fusco

With no work to do (at this point, at least) ahead of the first round of the NFL draft Thursday, the Patriots are keeping busy with free agents. 

The team reportedly brought in a pair of players for visits Wednesday, with former Jaguars linebacker Dan Skuta and former Vikings offensive lineman Brandon Fusco both making the trip to New England. 

Skuta, 31, was released two seasons into a five-year, $20.5 million contract with the Jaguars. The 6-foot-2, 252-pounder broke into the league as an undrafted free agent with the Bengals in 2009 and has also played for the 49ers. Last season, he totaled 18 tackles with no sacks over 13 games. His career-high in tackles came when he had 40 in 2015; he posted a career-best five sacks with San Francisco in 2014. 

A sixth-round pick in 2011, the 28-year-old Fusco had spent his entire career with the Vikings as a center and guard before being released in February. 

Prototypical Patriots: Hansen's size, elusiveness would be a handful

Prototypical Patriots: Hansen's size, elusiveness would be a handful

The Patriots were pretty well-stocked at receiver in 2016, and position coach Chad O'Shea only picked up one of the most explosive players in the league when Brandin Cooks was dealt by New Orleans to New England this offseason.

Still, we know we can't rule anything out. That's why we're going to take a quick look at a handful of the athletic pass-catchers -- both slots and outside-the-numbers types -- in this year's draft class who look like they could make Tom Brady's life a little easier. 

PHIL PERRY'S PROTOTYPICAL PATRIOTS DRAFT PREVIEW

Zay Jones, East Carolina, 6-foot-2, 205 pounds: One of the best receiver prospects in this year's class, Jones' performance at the Senior Bowl should put to rest any concerns that he simply beat up on lower-level competition when he went off for 158 catches and 1,746 yards and eight scores last season. He has the size and athleticism (4.45-second 40-yard dash, 36.5-inch vertical, 133-inch broad jump) to play on the outside, but his quickness would allow him to thrive in the slot as well (4.01-second 20-yard shuttle, 11.17-second 60-yard shuttle). That kind of versatility would make him an ideal fit in New England but he's almost guaranteed to be gone by the time the second round rolls around. 

Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington, 6-foot-2, 204 pounds: Kupp's long speed (4.62-second 40) may limit him to slot work in the NFL, but that's fine. His ability to run routes is among the best in the draft class, and he showed an uncanny ability to separate even against superior athletes with Washington (8 catches, 145 yards, 3 touchdowns in 2014), Oregon (15 catches, 246 yards, 3 touchdowns in 2015) and at this year's Senior Bowl. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola won't play forever, and if the Patriots are looking for their slot of the future Kupp would be a good match. 

Chad Hansen, Cal, 6-foot-2, 202 pounds: In terms of his experience running a variety of routes, Hansen is more like an Antithetical Patriot. He aligned almost exclusively out wide and on the right side of Cal's formations, and according to Pro Football Focus 73.6 percent of his targets came on screens (where he was surprisingly elusive after the catch in one-on-one situations), hitches and go routes. Though his numbers at the combine were relatively pedestrian, he's quick for his size (6.74-second three-cone drill, 4.13-second short shuttle) and he plays faster than the numbers would indicate. Plus, he's one of the most coordinated outside receivers in the class. He's excellent at using his frame to high-point passes along the sidelines, and he has good awareness to get his feet down in-bounds. With plenty of room to grow after just one season as a starter with the Bears (he transferred from Idaho State after spending the 2013 season there), Hansen is the kind of work-in-progress prospect who could blossom with a year of seasoning in New England. 

Taywan Taylor, Western Kentucky, 5-foot-11, 203 pounds: Though his timed speed was nothing to write home about (4.5-second 40), Taylor is another player who seemed to play faster than the numbers would indicate. Even if his speed doesn't totally translate from Conference USA to the NFL, which it very well may not, his shiftiness should allow him to create separation at the next level. He ran a 6.57-second three-cone drill, a 4.21-second short shuttle, and he looks like a middle-round selection who could figure into a slot role with the Patriots.

ArDarius Stewart, Alabama, 5-foot-11, 204 pounds: A nice recommendation from Nick Saban wouldn't hurt, but even if Stewart didn't play under Bill Belichick's good friend he'd be featured in this space. Fast enough (4.49-second 40), explosive enough (34-inch vertical, 124-inch broad jump), competitive and physical, Stewart looks like the kind of versatile option that the Patriots could align just about anywhere depending on the matchups. He's a polished route-runner who can beat corners with his hands or head-fakes, and when attacking contested passes he has the balance to hold his own at the moment of truth. An effective blocker -- key in the Patriots system -- and a potential kick-return option, there's not much to nit-pick about his fit in Foxboro. The only questions are a) can the Patriots find room for him? And b) does he fall far enough to land in their laps? NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compares him to Chris Hogan.

Mack Hollins, North Carolina, 6-foot-4, 221 pounds: If you're looking for big-time college production, Hollins probably isn't your guy. Still, his size (33-inch arms, 10.5-inch hands) and explosiveness (120-inch broad jump) give him big-play potential in the NFL. He had 20 touchdowns on 71 touches for the Tar Heels. As far as the Patriots are concerned, what might make Hollins worthy of a mid-to-late round pick is that he was a four-year special teams captain and will provide immediate help on punt and kickoff units.