After rolling over the Texans 42-14 in week 14, what's the single most important thing the Patriots can do to avoid a let-down on Sunday?
Tony Santorsa leads off the debate below (okay, so maybe it's more of a roundtable, but since we started with the "debate" label, we're going to stick with it):
In my honest opinion and throughout all my years of football, when two solid teams are playing against each other it will always come down to turnovers and third down conversions.
The Patriots might not have the greatest defense in the league, but they create turnovers-that trend needs to continue Sunday.
As for third downs, not only does Tom Brady and New England's offense need to convert on third downs, but their defense needs to get off of the field. The Patriots are at their best when the ball is in Brady's hands, not when their defense is on the field.
Ultimately New England needs to create turnovers and needs to be more efficient on third downs than Houston in order to avoid a let-down.
This game will be won up front. If the Pats get a solid or better game out of their offensive line, e.g. control J.J. Watt and the Houston pass rush, there's no reason to think that they can't score in the 30s or even the 40s. Defensively, if the line is able to disrupt what Houston likes to do most, which is run the ball to set up play action and take some shots downfield to Andre Johnson, the Texans will be rendered one-dimensional. The Patriots are too diverse on offense for the Texans to stay with them without getting consistent pressure. Whichever team controls the line of scrimmage on both sides should win this game and my money's on the Patriots.
Start fast and keep the pressure on. We've seen during the year where the offense will either start slow, be ineffective for several series, or have trouble finishing the game. This game will go as our offense goes, so we need our offensive playmakers to keep pressure on the whole game.
That also means limiting the effect of one J.J. Watt, which they were able to do the first time around.
The defense need only keep the Texans from becoming explosive, which means limiting the effect of Foster and the play-action.
Starting fast is going to be key for the Patriots on Sunday. While having a bye is absolutely huge in that it gives the team much needed time off to rest players, get healthy, and get an extra week of gameplanning in, bye weeks can also be momentum killers and a break in routine could be the recipe for a sluggish, flat start. Everyone is obviously pointing to the 2010 playoff game against the Jets in relation to the Texans game, but I don't need to look much farther than Week 10 of this year, when the Patriots needed a last second pick from Devin McCourty to save a 37-31 squeaker against the lowly Bills at home. Similarly, the Patriots looked sloppy and lifeless during a Week 8 loss to the Steelers in 2011. Both of those games came after a bye week, and both of those games were far cries from how the team looked before heading into the week off (a 45-7 blowout of the Rams in 2012 and that fantastic come from behind victory over the Cowboys in 2011).
If the Patriots play like they did during Week 17, I think that they will be in great shape; the key is immediately shaking off any and all rust that may have accumulated during the bye by scoring quickly and creating some real momentum. I'm usually a huge proponent of deferring until the 2nd half if at all possible, but I wouldn't mind seeing the Patriots get the ball first, score an early touchdown, and just dictate the pace of the game from there.
Getting the tight ends involved early and often looks to be the biggest key for the Patriots on Sunday.
The drubbing of the Texans was too recent and the Texans boast too good a defense to get bested the same way again. The biggest wild card heading into Sunday is the re-pairing of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, who look to be as healthy as they've been all season--Gronkowski's Dolphin playoff primer notwithstanding.
The way the Patriots utilize their tight ends on receiving routes will allow Brady to get rid of the ball quickly, taking a considerable amount of teeth away from the strong Texans' pass rush that now features recently returning LB Brooks Reed. Gronkowski and his nearly indefensible seam route when the Patriots find themselves situated in the red zone could be the difference between three or a possible game-deciding six points.
The single most important thing for the offense is to start fast and make a statement by scoring early. It's a mental blow as well as a tangible one on the scoreboard.
For the defense, the single most important thing is to limit Arian Foster and make the Texans' offense one-dimensional. If the Patriots keep him under 100 yards, and preferably closer to the 46 he gained against the Pats last December.
It seems that the general consensus here is for the Patriots to start quick. It's hard to disagree with that sentiment. The playoff games that the Patriots have dominated in the past five years, have been the result of starting fast. Think Denver in 2011, and Jacksonville in 2007.
And while starting fast is always nice, the single most important thing the Patriots can do on Sunday is establish balance on the offensive side of the football. It's really been black and white for the Patriots in the playoffs in recent history. Run the ball well, create that balance, and win football games. Become one dimensional and rely on the pass, and lose those games.
In Super Bowl XLVI against the Giants, the Patriots' leading rusher was BenJarvus Green-Ellis who had 44 yards on just 10 carries. The Patriots rushing leader in the Divisional Playoff loss to the Jets in 2010? Danny Woodhead with 46 yards on 14 carries. Against the Ravens in 2009? Kevin Faulk was the leading rusher with 52 yards on 14 carries. And finally, the Patriots top rusher against the Giants in Super Bowl XLII was Laurence Maroney, who had 36 yards on 14 carries.
In all of those games, there were two common denominators. No Patriots back had more than 52 yards, and no Patriots back had more than 14 carries. So the single most important thing the Patriots can do, in my opinion, is establish balance on the ground. Run the ball throughout. And keep the offense two dimensional.
So there you have it, our keys to the game. Feel free to add to the debate below!