We know, we know. The last time these two teams met, the Patriots slaughtered the Texans along the same lines of what Alabama did to Notre Dame earlier this week.
That doesn't mean it will automatically happen again. Even in New England.
Want evidence? It doesn't take going back very far. In December 2010, the Patriots blasted the Jets, 45-3, on Monday Night Football. Sound familiar?
Barely over a month later, the Jets cruised past those same Patriots at Gillette Stadium in the divisional round of the playoffs, posting a 28-21 win that wasn't even as close as that score indicates (Tom Brady added a largely cosmetic touchdown with 24 seconds left).
The biggest factor in turning the tide for New York was a remarkably improved performance at quarterback. After Mark Sanchez threw no touchdowns and three interceptions (27.8 rating) in December, he turned it around with a brilliant game in January, tossing three touchdowns without turning it over once (127.3 rating).
Two years later, a similar turnaround from quarterback Matt Schaub would provide an immense boost to Texan hopes. Here's a look at the top five things the Texans must change in order to flip the script.
5. Catches from receivers besides Andre Johnson
Schaub wasn't at his best in the prior game, but he also didn't have much help. On the opening series, Lestar Jean dropped a third-down pass that hit him directly in the hands -- one that would've been good for 20+ yards and a first down in New England territory. In the second quarter, Kevin Walter whiffed on a routine fourth-down catch that would've extended the drive and placed Houston, at a minimum, in field-goal range. Tight end Garrett Graham didn't play at all due to a concussion.
Outside of Johnson, no Houston receiver or tight end had more than two catches or 31 yards. That's not good enough to score the points necessary to beat a Brady-led team in Foxboro. The good news is that the Texans had their most diverse receiving breakdown in weeks during the Wild Card win over Cincinnati. Owen Daniels caught a team-high nine passes for 91 yards. Graham appeared healthy and caught three passes for 29 yards. Walter added four catches of his own -- his highest single-game total since mid-November.
Continuing that level of success is essential in New England to keep Bill Belichick's defense honest, thereby making them respect the entire field.
4. Pressure from the front four
Teams that give the New England offense problems usually do so because they're able to pressure Brady without blitzing. Think back to the Giants and their fearsome defensive lines in both of their Super Bowl wins against the Patriots.
Brady averages a mere 3.03 seconds before pass on his dropbacks, representing the quickest delivery in the NFL. That means that most blitzes won't even have time to get there, and only leave the secondary even more vulnerable on the back end. For the year, Brady has 20 touchdowns and 0 interceptions -- by far the best ratio in the NFL -- against five or more rushers. In the earlier matchup with the Texans, Brady went 13-of-19 for 148 yards and three touchdowns against extra rushers.
Historically, Wade Phillips defenses do blitz a lot. But he's capable of making adjustments. In that first game, the Texans took the Patriots out of rhythm in the middle of the game by forcing four consecutive punts, including three 3-and-outs. The biggest individual key was J.J. Watt. Even though Watt didn't record a sack, he hit Brady three times and forced several other hurried throws. If Watt along with Antonio Smith, Earl Mitchell and Connor Barwin can get that sort of pressure without help from blitzing safeties, that's the best chance the Texans have to stymie New England drives. 3. Better run blocking
For the defense to get that done, they need help from the offense -- particularly in the form of long drives that allow defenders time to rest. It starts up front. Foster rushed 15 times for just 46 yards in the first matchup, and 15 of those yards came on the very first play. After that, 14 carries for just 31 yards.
The biggest culprit was the right side of the Houston line. Rookie guard Ben Jones proved no match for mammoth New England tackle Vince Wilfork, and right tackle Ryan Harris wasn't much better outside. This week, Harris will be replaced by Derek Newton, the usual starter who missed the first game with a knee injury. Newton played one of his finer games of the year against Cincinnati, and repeating that performance would go a long way toward helping Foster sustain his playoff form. At guard, the Texans have given an increasing workload over the past month to Brandon Brooks, a massive 6-foot-5, 340-pound rookie who has the size to compete with Wilfork. It definitely seems like Gary Kubiak has been planning for a Wilfork rematch, one that could see Brooks with the majority of snaps at right guard.
If the Texans win Sunday, it'll likely be because the defense forced more stops than in the first meeting and because Schaub made big plays in the passing game. A respectable effort on the ground is crucial to both of those objectives.
2.) Winning the battle of turnovers and mistakes
The case could easily be made that the earlier Texans-Patriots game was decided on three plays. Two were New England fumbles inside the 10-yard line, and the other was a dangerous pass Schaub threw at the goal line. The Texans couldn't recover either fumble, and the Patriots scored touchdowns on both series. Meanwhile, Devin McCourty successfully took advantage of Schaub's misread and corralled the interception, keeping Houston off the board. In a sense, 21 points were up for grabs on those three plays, and the Patriots took every one of them. The Houston defense went 0-for-2 on their opportunities, while the New England unit was 1-of-1 on theirs.
That needs to change on Sunday. In the Jets-Patriots analogy, perhaps the biggest play of the game came on New England's first drive. The Jets opened up with a punt, and the Patriots marched with ease from their own 16 to the New York 28, carrying a distinct "here we go again" vibe. But Jets linebacker David Harris sniffed out an attempted screen play, intercepted Brady and returned it 58 yards. It was the only turnover of the game for either side, and it completely swung momentum. If the Texans have a similar opportunity, they simply must execute.
1.) Aggressive Schaub needed
A very good outing for the Houston defense would involve holding the Patriots to the 20s in points. That's how outstanding Brady's offense is. To counter that, it can't be exclusively the ground-and-pound Texans that bruised their way past the Bengals. Schaub will have to make big plays in the passing game and allow the Texans to score touchdowns rather than field goals.
The biggest key is his confidence. In the Cincinnati matchup, Schaub threw the ball beyond 10 yards in the air a mere three times, and never once beyond 20 yards. He consistently checked down to backs and tight ends (of 29 completions, 21 went to those positions) and wasn't able to make big gains downfield. On one checkdown in the first half, Cincinnati corner Leon Hall anticipated Schaub's out to James Casey and intercepted it, bringing it back 21 yards for a touchdown. Schaub also missed an open Johnson in the end zone when he fired off his back foot, rather than stepping into the throw. On the whole, that's 11 points Schaub directly cost his team. That can't happen in Foxboro.
There were, however, positive signs late last week. Schaub went 10-of-12 in the second half, including multiple clutch throws on third down -- one of which effectively ended the game. His quarterback rating improved from near 70 in the first half to almost 100 in the second. There's also the fact that historically, Schaub isn't a checkdown guy. He's usually in the top 10 for NFL quarterbacks in yards per attempt and completions. It's not unfathomable for Schaub to turn things around and make the big plays to win this game.
That said, there are simply too many things that have to go right to win a meaningful game in New England -- a place where fluky bounces, bad calls and seemingly unforced errors (like those in the first meeting) seem almost routine. The Texans would be the pick in Houston, but they frittered that opportunity away with their regular-season-ending meltdown against Minnesota and Indianapolis. This is where they pay the price. The Texans are likely to put up a respectable effort, but it's tough (though not impossible) to see them ahead after 60 minutes.
Prediction: New England 30, Houston 24
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