FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – When the NFL schedule came out, Sunday’s visit by the Houston Texans to the New England Patriots looked like an easy win for the home team.

Deep into a season, with too many penalties and turnovers and too few talented wide receivers, a win of any kind would satisfy the three-time Super Bowl champions. After splitting their last six games, they’re hardly peaking for the playoffs.

“We better get it turned around quick,” fullback Heath Evans said. “Otherwise, this’ll get ugly real quick.”

The struggles have dragged on so long that even Tom Brady, obsessed with not pointing fingers at teammates, sent a message this week to some he didn’t name.

“If we listen more and we did more of what our coaches told us to do, I think we’d be a lot better off,” the quarterback said. “But at times I think we figure we can do it our way, and we show that there is quite a bit of inconsistency to that.”

The Patriots (9-4) still lead the AFC East by two games over the New York Jets and can clinch the division title with a win over the Texans and a loss or tie by the Jets at Minnesota, or a tie with the Texans and a loss by the Jets.

“I hope my teammates feel like we have a great opportunity and we don’t squander it away like we have this year,” Brady said.

In their last three games, the Patriots have committed 23 penalties and 11 turnovers. They’re coming off a 21-0 loss at Miami in which Brady threw for just 78 yards.

Houston (4-9) played a much closer game last Sunday. The Texans went into overtime before losing to surging Tennessee, 26-20. The Titans won their fourth straight game. The Patriots must play them in Tennessee in the regular-season finale.

The Texans have some talented players on both sides of the ball. Andre Johnson leads the NFL in receptions and David Carr has an NFL-best 69.4 completion percentage. On defense, No. 1 overall draft pick, end Mario Williams, needs two sacks to tie Bruce Smith’s rookie record of 6.5. Another rookie, linebacker DeMeco Ryans, leads the NFL with 128 tackles.

“He can be a difference maker,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said of Ryans. “He’s very disruptive. He’s had his moments this year. The last four or five weeks he has struggled with a foot problem.”

Williams is impressed with his fellow rookie.

“DeMeco is leading this team with his play all over the field,” Williams said. “He is everywhere. He is solid on the sideline. When things go wrong and maybe there is confusion in the huddle or confusion from the sideline calls to the field, he is there to correct the play and get us in the right position.”

The Patriots had trouble keeping another defensive end out of their backfield last Sunday. Miami’s Jason Taylor had one sack and repeatedly beat attempted blocks.

“We’ve picked up those blitzes before,” Evans said. “We had a horrible game. and we’ll move on and adjust and get it right.”

But the Patriots, already battered by injuries that have put linebacker Junior Seau and safety Eugene Wilson on injured reserve, could be without nose tackle Vince Wilfork and tight end Benjamin Watson, their leading receiver. Both are listed as questionable after leaving the Miami game with injuries.

Mike Wright, 30 pounds lighter than the 325-pound Wilfork, filled in. He’s also listed as questionable.

“There are elements of Mike’s style of play that are similar to Vince’s,” coach Bill Belichick said. “They’re both tough. They’re both aggressive. They both use their hands well.”

Whoever plays will try to stop running back Ron Dayne. He rushed for 87 yards and two touchdowns last Sunday. He also ran for 98 yards and a touchdown on Thanksgiving Day against Dallas. Rookie Wali Lundy, Houston’s leading rusher, also is a threat.

On defense, the Texans must be ready for a determined Brady.

“When their team hits any type of adversity, that’s who they turn it over to,” Kubiak said. “So we know he’s going to be throwing that ball around.”

Brady just needs his blockers to protect him and his receivers to get open, both problems in Miami.

“I don’t think I’m ever a person that lacks confidence,” Brady said. “What I think we can accomplish, some days it looks better than others.”

AP-ES-12-16-06 1251EST


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