NFL Playoff Preview - Houston (13-4) at New England (12-4)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Seizing second chances is always an important part of life.
The AFC South champion Houston Texans will get their second chance on Sunday afternoon after securing a rematch with New England by downing the Cincinnati Bengals, 19-13, in the wild-card round.
Whether Houston can make it count against a Patriots team, which got to rest last week thanks in large part to kick-starting the Texans' 1-3 late-season collapse with a 42-14 rout in Week 14, remains to be seen.
"It was meaningful for our whole team what we're trying to accomplish," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who threw four touchdown passes in the Week 14 win. "You don't take these things for granted. It's a privilege to be in this position and to be one of the teams to have played well enough over the course of the year to deserve the first-round bye."
Some of Houston's marquee talent shined on the big stage last weekend. Running back Arian Foster rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries, becoming the first player in NFL history to rush for 100-or-more yards in his first three career playoff games as the Texans ousted the Bengals from the postseason for the second straight year.
Pro Bowl left tackle Duane Brown was dominant in leading Foster and likely Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, who paced the Texans' seventh-ranked defense with 20 1/2 sacks, a mind-blowing 39 tackles for loss, 42 quarterback hits, 16 passes defensed and four forced fumbles during the regular season, was his usual disruptive force, recording five tackles and a sack with two passes defended.
"I think we controlled the line of scrimmage and any time we do that, we're going to be tough to beat," said Foster, who finished with 174 yards from scrimmage.
The Texans defense held Cincinnati to just 198 yards and an 0-for-9 mark on third downs, marking the first time since the 1988 AFC Championship Game that a defense didn't allow an opponent to convert on third down.
To top the Patriots, however, the Texans will need far more from quarterback Matt Schaub, who missed last season's 31-10 victory over the Bengals in the playoffs due to a foot injury.
Schaub finished 29-of-38 for 262 yards with one interception in his first career playoff start. The numbers were fine for but Schaub couldn't find the end zone and more will be needed against a high-powered Patriots team which sports the NFL's No. 1 offense.
"We know what it takes to win and that's play good road football and we didn't do that last time we played up there," Schaub said. "We're going to have a good week of preparation, we're going to move on from this one, and we're going to be excited to go up there."
In Houston's 42-14 loss at New England on Monday Night Football back on Dec. 10, Brady torched the Texans with an up-tempo offense, throwing for the four touchdowns and 296 yards.
The Patriots' defense, meanwhile, held the Texans to just 14 points after Houston entered the game averaging 29.3 points per game. The Pats shut out the Texans in the first half and built a 42-7 lead before Houston closed out the scoring with a meaningless TD late.
A matchup of what was the two top scoring teams in the league at the time was a mismatch from the outset. It took New England, the AFC East champions, only one possession to start its scoring barrage as the Patriots surpassed their then-average of 35.8 points per game.
"We understand the challenge that we have," said Houston head coach Gary Kubiak "That is what is awesome about this league; it's the ultimate challenge. The Patriots have been at this level for a long time. We had a rough trip up there last time, but we've earned our right to go back. We want to go back and play a lot better than we did last time."
Houston is 1-3 all-time against the Pats and has never won at Gillette Stadium.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
New England had the league's top offense during the regular season, producing 427.9 yards per game, and led the NFL in scoring with 34.8 points per game, the sixth-highest single-season average all-time.
Brady, who is one of five players to be named Super Bowl MVP multiple times (Super Bowls XXXVI, XXXVIII), enters the postseason with a 16-6 record and his .727 postseason winning percentage is the third-best mark in NFL history, trailing Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw (.737) and Troy Aikman (.733).
"You should take full advantage of every opportunity because you never know if you'll get the opportunity again," Brady said. "Regardless if this is your first, second, third year or if it's your 10th or 11th, you never know if you'll make it back."
Brady exposed the Texans with his uncanny ability to create tempo, either by speeding things up and limiting defensive substitutions or slowing things down and using pinpoint accuracy to shred zone concepts. Brady is able to survey things at the line of scrimmage and get his team into the proper play on a consistent basis, something Pats head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels give him the freedom to do. The All-Pro also takes care of the ball as evidenced by New England's NFL-leading plus-25 turnover differential.
"They get them," Kubiak said when talking about turnovers. "They don't give it up. If we go in there and do anything to help them, we're in trouble."
By limiting substitutions, Brady puts an incredible strain on any defense and its ability to handle a plethora of playmakers, like tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, as well as slot receiver Wes Welker, outside the numbers threat Brandon Lloyd and running backs Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead.
On the other hand, Watt is a one-man wrecking machine for Houston, the one player in the NFL who has proven he can't be blocked. Brady's ability to get rid of the ball quickly, however, rendered the superstar moot on the team's first matchup.
"I got quite a few hits on Brady, but obviously the ball was gone every time," Watt said. "Didn't bat any balls, didn't have any tackles for a loss, so I need to do more."
That's true since the one flaw in Brady's game, as evidenced by his two Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants, is his inability to handle a strong pass rush, which can limit his line of vision, something Watt, who has 4 1/2 sacks, three passes defensed and a 29-yard pick six in three career postseason games, usually excels at.
Expect Watt to forget about sacking Brady and focus on getting his lengthy frame into the Passing lanes. Either way, he'll need plenty of help from fellow pass rushers like Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin.
"He's an incredible player," Brady said when talking about Watt. "What he does in both the run game and the pass game -- the passes defensed is an amazing statistic. You have to know where he's at on every single play because he's so disruptive with tackles for loss and his penetration of the backfield. He's as good as anyone playing in the game and we know how challenging it is to play against him."
Offensively Houston would like to get Foster going early with its zone- blocking scheme, play ball control and keep it out of Brady's hands. Foster's 425 rushing yards over his first three postseason games are an NFL record so he doesn't shrink on the big stage. And understand the Texans are 8-0 this season when Foster reaches the century mark.
"Last week, you saw why this guy is one of the top offensive players in the game, not just a back, but a top offensive player in the game," Patriots star defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said when talking about Foster. "The things that he can do with the ball in his hands, in the pass game and running it ... and he's a great blocker. I mean he's a special player and we understand that."
"He's good with the ball in his hands and he's an excellent receiver," Belichick, who is tied with Joe Gibbs (17) for the third-most playoff wins all-time, added. "He's a very dangerous player. He's one of the best backs in the league, no question about that."
A strong running game could also open up play-action for Schaub, who seems to be doubting himself a bit after the late-season slump.
The Pats rank 29th in the NFL in pass defense but the secondary has been much improved since acquiring talented corner Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay and moving Devin McCourty back to safety. The Texans can scare just about anyone with star receiver Andre Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels but the downfield threats drop off a table after that.
Brady is 10-2 as a starter in the playoffs at home and his 16 overall postseason victories are tied with Joe Montana for the most in NFL history. That said, his most recent home playoff loss came two seasons ago when New England lost to a New York Jets team it had beaten 45-3 at home in the regular season.
That could give Houston hope but not much. Since the Patriots opened Gillette Stadium in 2002, they have celebrated more regular season and postseason wins than any other team in the NFL by far. New England is 73-15 in the regular season and 9-2 in the playoffs since '02 and has the highest point differential at home, rank first in points scored and third in points allowed.
Meanwhile, the Patriots have advanced to the Super Bowl in three of the four seasons (1978, 1996, 2001 and 2004) that they have earned the No. 2 seed and are 13-3 all-time at home in the playoffs. Conversely, the Texans have never won a postseason road game.
That my friends is a home-field advantage.
"You don't win a war by digging a foxhole and sitting in it," Belichick said. "You have to go out there and attack. You have to go out there and make the plays you need to make to win. It's a one-game season."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 31, Texans 17
01/10 12:47:19 ET