It's Divisional playoff weekend and yes folks, your New England Patriots are to be involved with the round's marquee match up, a rematch against the Houston Texans on Sunday afternoon at 4:30 at Gillette Stadium.
Here's perhaps the simplest, most rudimentary factoid about this game: The Texans might know how to beat the Pats. But the Pats definitely know how to beat the Texans.
And as a subheading, even if the Texans do know exactly what they need to do to win, can they go out and execute it?
The likelihood of that happening is pretty small. Houston simply hasn't been the same team it was prior to meeting the Pats in that Monday night massacre last month, having lost three of its last four games and losing its grip on what looked like a certain top two seed. One could even argue that had it not been for one lousy overthrow by Bengals' QB Andy Dalton in last weekend's Wild Card game, the Texans would be sitting at home already while the Pats prepared for a rematch against Baltimore.
Regardless of all that, the games still need to be played. And momentum, be it positive or negative, is a pretty fickle mistress in football, as the Pats would happily attest while pointing directly to their loss to the 49ers less than a week after bludgeoning the then 11-1 Texans.
This game, as the last one did, will come down to whether or not the Pats can protect Tom Brady from Houston's fearsome pass rush and thus give him enough time to pick apart the Texans' secondary. On the other side of the ball, it will be interesting to see what the Texans have learned since the blowout. They seemed unwilling to try to attack to the Pats, sticking more often to their core philosophy of running to set up play action, even when looking at long yardage situations on second down and a big deficit.
Also, Houston QB Matt Schaub looked as if he was trying to do too much at times, eschewing check downs and open throws underneath or into the flat and subsequently taking himself out of his comfort zone. His first quarter, end zone interception, which turned into a 14-point Pats' lead just six plays later, was such an instance.
This game should be tougher for the Pats than the first meeting was, even if they do follow the blueprint on how to beat the Texans perfectly. If the Texans have any pride whatsoever, they will ride into this one at least in part on the wave of trying to save face/ prove doubters wrong. They were embarrassed the last time they played in Foxborough and that should prove a big motivator for them come Sunday afternoon.
So with that, let's get into this game, which with a win, will mark the Pats' seventh trip to an AFC Championship game in the last 12 years.
When the Patriots pass the ball.
Brady passed for just under 300 yards and four TDs in the first game while being kept relatively clean minus a couple of knockdowns by J.J. Watt. The Texans chose to play man on the outside while attempting to take away much of the underneath and medium range routes the Pats love to so much. It didn't really work. Wes Welker was held to just three catches in that game, with one, his longest gainer (25 yards) a deep seam route. But Aaron Hernandez still managed to haul in eight passes and score a couple of times, which opened up some deeper throws, two of which Brady hit on for scores.
Rob Gronkowski did not play in the first meeting and with him back in the fold, the Texans may want to rethink their strategy against the pass. Singling up Gronk anywhere on the field, whether it's underneath, up the seam or outside, is a recipe for disaster for a defense. And his presence will make it tougher on Houston to hold Welker down again. Hernandez looked much healthier in Week 17 against the Dolphins and Gronk should look more himself come Sunday after seeing limited action in the Miami game then getting an extra week to heal his forearm.
Again, the success of the Pats' passing game will rely on whether Brady stays upright. The first meeting between these two teams, along with the Week 13 game at Miami, marked the start of a subpar run for the offensive line, which really struggled for about a month before picking it up against the Dolphins in the regular season finale. Brady was only sacked once the first time around, but he was hit six times, three of them by Watt, who was contained but not necessarily controlled.
Houston will have second year linebacker Brooks Reed healthy for this game which should aid the pass rush. And no one is better at getting his hands on passes at the line of scrimmage than Watt, who was shut out in that category back in December, but is still a major threat in that regard. The Texans may well mix up their coverages a little bit too seeing as how all the man stuff didn't fare that well in the first meeting. But defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has had success in the past sticking to his scheme so whatever looks Brady sees in the secondary probably won't be too different from the first time around.
In the end, the Pats' offense is just too diverse for the Texans to hold down for too long, especially if they can't get consistent pressure on Brady. It may not be as easy for him to do what he wants as it was during the first meeting, but Brady and the passing game should be just fine.
When the Texans pass the ball.
Schaub, who had been excellent up until the Monday nighter in Foxborough, really fell of a cliff after that game. He's thrown just one TD against five picks in his last five games and it was running back Arian Foster who carried Houston's offense in last week's win over Cincinnati. Schaub bounced back from the loss to the Pats nicely in a win over Indianapolis the following week, posting a 109.7 passer rating. But in three games since, his high in that category was a ho-hum 83.4 last week. The Texans will need much more than that out of their QB if they want to hang with a team capable of scoring points the way the Pats can.
Andre Johnson is still the Texans' top receiver and he did catch eight passes for 95 yards on 10 targets in the first game. But he was the only Houston player to make more than two grabs besides Foster (who caught four out of the backfield) and that was with Pats' corner Aqib Talib shadowing him for the entire first half. Talib went down with his hip injury in that game but Alfonzo Dennard did just as good a job staying with Johnson after Talib left. Both of those corners have since missed action after Dennard hurt his knee against the 49ers, but both have been at practice all week.
Whether or not the Pats are able to go back to their preferred secondary alignment, featuring those two outside, Kyle Arrington in the slot and Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory at safety, if the Texans aren't able to diversify their pass offense and Schaub isn't able to get the ball to anyone but Johnson, it won't really matter. Houston has multiple receivers in addition to Johnson but they were all mostly ignored in the last game. Tight end Owen Daniels, who it was thought would come up big in that game given the Pats' struggles covering backs and tight ends all year, was thrown to just three times and caught only two passes for 24 yards. That's not going to get it done against the Pats.
The Pats also need to make Schaub as uncomfortable as they did in the first meeting. Rob Ninkovich was huge in that game and if he can go after leaving the Week 17 game against the Dolphins with a hip injury, that will be a big plus for the Pats (he's been limited at practice all week but that means virtually nothing on a Patriots' injury report). Vince Wilfork was immense in the last meeting as well, another sign that, just like on offense, the Pats can be successful if they can control the line of scrimmage. Their defensive line ended the regular season a bit banged up, but that group was the team's strength on defense by a wide mile all year.
Houston gets its No. 2 tight end back for this game in Garrett Graham and the Pats were burned by a competent, two tight end offense against the 49ers. We'll see whether or not Houston coach Gary Kubiak is savvy enough to try to exploit that potential match up advantage. The Pats were sailing on defense headed into the last meeting and if they can get similar production out of that side of the ball again along with Schaub continuing to look ordinary, they could well sail again on Sunday. Just don't expect it to be as easy as it was the first time around.
When the Texans run the ball.
Foster, a superstar back, only carried the ball 15 times in the first meeting and while some of that must be tied to the fact that the Pats got up big early, the Texans still called for 26 run plays and were unable to stray from Kubiak's script even in some situations that were screaming for more aggressive play calling. Foster and company got the ball on several 2nd and long situations and when going up against a run defense featuring Wilfork, Brandon Spikes and so on, well, that's just not very smart coaching.
One has to believe that in preparing for the game, Kubiak will have learned from his perplexing mistakes made in the first game and be able to utilize Foster more advantageously. He carried 32 times against Cincinnati and also caught eight passes and while the circumstances of that game dictated those numbers, Kubiak must change things up with Foster if he wants a real shot to win this game.
It's not going to work if the Texans play offense the way they like to best, which is to say, run on first down, run on many second downs, go play action on third down. Foster can really hurt the Pats but not nearly as much if he's utilized the same way as he was last time. If the Texans want to run a lot of play action that's fine, they just need to diversify how they do it. Running on 2nd and long isn't going to get it done either. But on 2nd and short after play faking on first down? Or running out of spread sets in short yardage situations? Better idea.
Kubiak is a qualified NFL head coach so he has to know that his running game as presently constituted needs to be tweaked against a Pats' front seven that drools over facing run-first teams. Will he be able to apply any of that to his game plan on Sunday? We'll see.
Prediction: Patriots 35, Texans 21
This will not be a repeat of 2010, when the Pats stomped the Jets on a Monday night in December only to see their season ended at the hands of their division rivals a month later. It also won't be a repeat of last season, when the Pats blew out the Broncos in December then blew out them out even worse come playoff time. It will fall somewhere in the middle, but the Pats will emerge victorious. In order for Houston to win this game, it will have to score more than 30 points and the Texans' offense, even with Foster and Johnson, just isn't equipped to do that, especially with Schaub playing the way he's played for over a month and a conservative coach like Kubiak. The Pats' defense, particularly up front, is too opportunistic for the Texans to handle for the entire length of a game. There is more pressure on the Pats in this one; Houston is playing with house money to a point after getting crushed in the last meeting. In addition to trying to advance in the playoffs, the Texans are also trying to prove that they're no pushover. The Pats, meanwhile, are expected to win again and with ease. In the end, it will come down to who controls the line of scrimmage on both sides and the Pats, if completely healthy, have the edge at both of those spots. It also doesn't hurt that their QB/head coach combination is Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. How many of you would rather have that duo over Schaub and Kubiak? See you in the AFC Championship.