The path to the playoffs is widening for the New England Patriots, and it can get even wider with a win over the Houston Texans.
New England and Houston will face off Sunday afternoon with a lot on the line for the former – not so much for the latter. The Texans' only wins this season have come against the Jaguars, and they are on the verge of picking in the top five of the 2021 NFL Draft after making the playoffs last season.
PatriotMaven is breaking down the three most important matchups before every game all season long, with Sunday’s game against the Ravens next up on the slate.
Michael Onwenu vs. J.J. Watt
Watt is one of the best pass-rushers of the century.
Onwenu is just nine games into his NFL career, playing out of position.
The sixth-round pick out of Michigan is a guard by trade, but injuries and opt-outs have forced him to right tackle. Still, he is putting up great Pro Football Focus grades on the regular, and he is certainly the best rookie on the Patriots.
Watt is no ordinary defensive end, though.
Injuries have limited him in recent years, but Watt is still a force to be reckoned with. He has 4.0 sacks, 6.0 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles in nine games this season, and he just picked up his 100th career sack Week 9 against Jacksonville.
Onwenu has done a solid job at protecting the quarterback in recent weeks, but he hasn't faced someone with the prestige of Watt yet this season. If he can slow down the future Hall of Famer and keep Cam Newton's jersey clean, the Patriots will be able to limit negative plays and balance their offense accordingly.
J.C. Jackson vs. Will Fuller V
Fuller is a big play receiver and Jackson is a playmaking corner.
Even if Stephon Gilmore makes his long-awaited return this weekend, Jackson has been thrust into a larger role and could very likely draw Fuller as a matchup all day long. The Texans have other solid receivers as well – including Brandon Cooks, Randall Cobb and Kenny Stills – so the Patriots' secondary will have its hands full all over the field.
Jackson leads the NFL with six interceptions, and he's picked off the opposing quarterback in five straight games.
Deshaun Watson likes dialing it up to Fuller deep, and that's where Jackson works best. As long as he isn't beat off the line like he was against the Jets a few weeks back, he could thrive in the matchup. The Ravens' big play threat, Marquise Brown, recorded just two catches for 14 yards last week, and Jackson picked off Lamar Jackson on a home run shot down the right sideline thrown Brown's way.
But still, Watson is a different quarterback than Jackson, and Fuller is 3 inches taller than Brown. Fuller had a streak of six-straight games with a touchdown earlier this season and he's broken the 100-yard threshold four times in 2020.
J.C. Jackson will have his work cut out for him for sure. His ability to limit Fuller over the top could be the deciding factor for the Patriots against a Texans team looking to make some noise.
Damien Harris vs. Zach Cunningham
It's barely halfway through the season and Cunningham already has 92 total tackles.
Going up against a defensive stalwart that active could be an issue for Harris, who is still trying to gain his footing in the NFL.
Harris has three 100-yard games so far this season, all while averaging 5.5 yards per carry. The Texans rank dead last in the league with 167.4 rushing yards allowed per game, so this could be another big day for the second-year tailback out of Alabama.
Whether or not that happens is in Cunningham's hands.
The inside linebacker sits at the center of a poor run defense, and it's his job to plug the leaks and turn things around. If he can do that and limit Harris, the Patriots' offense could be thrown off rhythm and the Texans might have a chance to pull off the upset Sunday afternoon.