With Deshaun Watson, can the Texans challenge the Patriots?

NBC News Houston

The Patriots are overwhelming favorites to return to the Super Bowl for the third time in four years. But that doesn't mean they don't have any competition. The Texans, fueled by a rookie QB and a coaching staff filled with former Patriots, might just be New England's biggest threat.

On offense, Houston was abysmal last year thanks almost exclusively to Brock Osweiler. With the former Bronco taking snaps, the Texans ranked 22nd in third-down conversion percentage, 29th in passing yards, and dead last in yards per attempt. Rookie first-round pick Deshaun Watson should drastically improve that attack almost immediately--at the very least, it would be tough for it to get worse.

The Clemson product will have plenty of weapons around him. Deandre Hopkins is among the best receivers in the league at grabbing contested catches, and Lamar Miller will provide a steady ground presence (and some outstanding big-play ability). Second-year receiver Will Fuller is one of the fastest players in the league, and rookie runner D'Onta Foreman is a LeGarrette-Blout-like goal-line load. GM Rick Smith has poured a lot of resources into this unit, and it's finally beginning to pay off.

But with that being said, defense is the Texans' bread and butter. They've got the league's best defensive player in JJ Watt, and a strong supporting cast behind him. Even after Watt was shut down in Week 3 last year, the Houston D finished the year ranked inside the top 10 in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA. Worse yet for New England, Houston's defensive masterminds, coordinator Mike Vrabel and assistant head coach Romeo Crennel, are both former Patriots who understand their former team inside and out. In last year's divisional round, it was Crennel who gave the Pats offense fits with his five-man fronts and creative interior blitzes. With Tom Brady at the helm, the formula to beat New England has been fairly clear: get pressure inside and disrupt the offense's timing while converting on all your offensive opportunities. Even though Bill Belichick & Co. changed protections in the second half to neutralize the rushes, for a half Houston was able to execute that blueprint to a T.

To be sure, there are still questions surrounding this team. Top corner AJ Bouye departed this offseason for Jacksonville, and depth along the defensive interior could be an issue after Vince Wilfork's retirement. Most importantly, the entire offense hinges on Watson's ability to learn the playbook and get on the field as fast as possible. Without him, the Texans' impressive collection of offensive weapons is rendered almost useless. But with him? Houston becomes one of a select few teams that can truly challenge the Patriots.

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