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We continue our roundtable debates by debating who the x-factor might be for the Patriots heading into today's game against the Texans.
Who or what is your X-factor for the Patriots heading into the Divisional Playoff match-up against the Texans?
Tony Santorsa leads off the debate below!
Who is my X-factor for the Patriots? It's got to be Danny Woodhead.
Woodhead is the ultimate change-of-pace running back. Not only can Woodhead add some explosiveness to New England's running game when he's subbing in for Stevan Ridley, but he brings several dimensions to the table. Woodhead is a great receiver coming out of the backfield-not to mention he can line up as a wide receiver too and run just as effective routes. The trait that impresses me the most with Woodhead is his ability to pass-protect for Tom Brady. Out of every running back the Patriots have, Woodhead stands alone-he reads defenses better than any running back that I've ever seen.
The key with Woodhead is that he can only be used in spurts. If the Patriots begin to rely heavily on him, much like they did in their loss against the San Francisco 49ers, then it will likely end up being the same result: The Pats coming up just short.
On offense, the X-factor for the Pats is Rob Gronkowski. In addition to reexamining how they schemed the first meeting on defense, the Texans will have to factor covering and slowing down Gronk into their plans. Assuming Gronk is healthier than he was in Week 17 against the Dolphins, he will likely be the same kind of focal point for the Pats on offense as he always is. The Texans had a tough enough time defensively in the first meeting. Now, if they also have to worry about the best tight end in the league being out there and performing to his normal capabilities, watch out.
On defense, the X-factor is Brandon Spikes. Spikes dealt with a knee injury down the stretch that robbed him of a great deal of the explosiveness he showed over the first three months of the season. If the Pats are going to hold down Arian Foster and the Texans' running game and thus force Matt Schaub to have to throw more than he's comfortable throwing, Spikes has to play well. He's the Pats' best run stopper along with Vince Wilfork and if Big Vince and his D-line buddies can get consistent push against Houston's offensive line, Spikes will be in for a big, productive game.
I was initially going to go with Shane Vereen and the unique matchup problems he creates, but after giving it more thought, my X-factor is Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells.
It's easy to forget how sparsely Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have been on the field at the same time this season as they came back from their respective injuries, partly because the Patriots have so many weapons at their disposal, and partly because of quality play from other tight ends that Belichick brought in to fill the void. Fells has done an admirable job filling in for Gronk as a blocking tight end, and Hoo-man has had his fair share of clutch catches on key downs. Now that everyone is healthy, New England can finally start instituting some of the offensive wrinkles that saw Hernandez lining up all over field last season while using Fells and Hoomanawanui to help keep the defense honest. I can easily envision a 2 TE set with Gronk and Hoo-man on the line and Hernandez in the backfield as a potential runner. I also like the odds of the Patriots picking up short yardage with a Jumbo set that includes Gronk, Fells, Hernandez, and Hoo-man as a blocking fullback in front of Stevan Ridley. That particular set also makes the playaction an absolute nightmare to defend.
Obviously, the lion's share of the snaps will be going to Gronk and Herndo. But just because our two best TEs are healthy, that doesn't mean that we won't see the other tight ends as well. In a game that will likely display a lot of new looks from both teams, look for all of New England's tight ends to make a positive contribution on Sunday.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The X-factor for Sunday's game is unquestionably and unequivocally Tom Brady.
There are many more pieces at work than just #12 that can and will sway the delicate balance of a playoff game, but as long as the entire offense runs through the signal-caller, this team will live and die on his arm alone. Brady exorcised quite a few demons last postseason when people were suddenly questioning his ability to win big games, turning in a stellar performance against the Broncos, a good-enough game against the Ravens and completing a go-ahead drive against the Giants that the defense predictably surrendered in the final minutes.
Brady doesn't have to be perfect in this playoff game, but he does have to be smart, and that includes making sound decisions and not turning the ball over. Brady boasts one of the more impressive supporting casts surrounding him on both sides of the ball he's had in years, so there will be no excuse not to turn in a solid performance against a team he found plenty of success with earlier this season. The Texans defense will try some different things as they open up the playbook in an attempt to rattle Brady, so his decision-making on the big stage once again becomes paramount.
Along with our defensive struggles over the past several years, the Pats have been missing playmakers that can get open quickly. This is critical when you face a premier pass rushing team. We've have Welker, of course, and teams have given him all sorts of extra attention - especially on third downs. We have Gronk as well, but not when he is hobbled like last year in a game that doesn't exist. Past that, we've not had guys that can get open quickly enough. My X-Factor for the whole post-season is Danny Woodhead, or more appropriately, the way McDaniels has been using Danny Woodhead. He has always been a matchup chess piece in the hurry-up option, but they are using him more and more as an outlet option. With three potential quick options, the offense is harder to stop. However, Tony already grabbed Danny, so, fair enough, I'll go with our other chess piece, Aaron Hernandez.
Unlike Welker and Gronkowski who do what they do better than anyone else in the league, Tom has two offensive threats that he moves around to create matchup problems all over the field. The first is Woodhead, who can stay in to block, run inside or outside, chip and screen, chip and route, or go wide. What ever the defense gives us, there is a counter in Woodhead. Likewise, Aaron Hernandez has tremendous position flexibility. He can line up in the TE spot and block or chip and go. He can slide to the slot or out wide as an extra receiver. He can line up as a fullback and give our RB an extra inline blocker. Aaron can line up as a fullback and pound through the middle. We haven't seen this flexibility as much this year, because he was injured early. When he came back, too early IMO, he lacked the speed that made him so dangerous. Then Gronk was injured, and Aaron was needed more as a traditional TE than as an X-Factor. With the return of Gronk, and a chance to heal up, I think we'll see Herndo all over the field.
Brady will be playing chess all night, and here's hoping Wade Philips comes playing checkers.
Danny Woodhead as the X-factor was my initial pick, but since he has already been singled out and addressed I'll go with Logan Mankins. Mankins had missed three games due to injuries before coming back to play under the lights on prime time against Houston. His return was a huge factor in the success of the New England offense then, and I believe it will be again in this next prime-time matchup at Gillette.
The week leading up to the December game had all the talking heads warning about the unstoppable J.J. Watt - with no mention of any ability of the Patriots offensive line to keep Tom Brady upright in the face of such pressure. I think that omission rankled Mankins just a bit, and consequentially the pride of the offensive line was on full display all night long. The results were that Brady was only sacked once and hit 6 times (3 from Watt) - a noticeable downturn in what the Texans' defense was used to. Mankins credited Matt Light, who was honored at halftime, as their inspiration. With this week being the playoffs Mankins won't need any further inspiration, motivation or letterman jacket to go all-out. The media contention that there's no way J.J. Watt and the famed Texans' pass-rush could be shut down a second time will just have to be settled on the field.
My x-factor is Dan Connolly and there isn't a close challenger. Let's look at the facts:
1. Dan Connolly has been the weak link on a superb offensive line. For the past two seasons, Connolly hasn't been able to play to the same level as the rest of the line around him. When he was at center, he looked out of his league next to a superb Brian Waters and a hobbled Logan Mankins. At guard, he's next to one of the league's premier right tackles in Sebastian Vollmer and, according to Pro Football Focus, the leagues best run blocking center in Ryan Wendell. Connolly is in the position to either play up to the level of the rest of the line, or let down the offense, because...
2. The Patriots need to generate a run game in order to control the ball, clock, and game. The Patriots win when they have a run game and they lose when they don't; simple as that. If Connolly can pull block at his best and if he can get to the second level and remove the linebackers from the play, the game will open up with play action passes and big runs. The reason that Connolly is so crucial...
3. He will be squaring off against J.J. Watt. Watt is the best defender in the league and you can bet the Texans will move him around to create mismatches and disrupt running lanes and the pocket around Brady. They like to use him at both the three- and five-tech positions, which line him up with Vollmer, Mankins, rising star Nate Solder, and Connolly. Which seems like the most likely weak point of attack?
No other player on the team will be charged with stopping the best defensive player in the league. No other player will be shouldering such an important role. Brady is only as good as his interior protection.
That starts and ends with Dan Connolly.
For my X-factor, I'm not going to go with a who, but a what. My X-factor for the Patriots against the Texans is the play action. There's a lot of things that we've talked about this week that I think are going to be important factors. The protection for Tom Brady, the health of the secondary, the tempo of the offense, and the balance on offense. However, I think a lot of the success that the Patriots will have will come down to exactly how effective the Patriots' play action is.
In the first half of that week 14 game, the Patriots abused the Texans time after time on that play action, picking up critical first downs and touchdown on plays the Texans might have otherwise been in position to make. It might be a bit of a broad X-factor, but if the Patriots can continue to fool the Texans on the play action, it might be a long day for that defense.