By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots and Houston Texans will meet once again on Sunday in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs in Foxboro. The Patriots had a well needed bye week to rest up a myriad of injuries while the Texans beat the Cincinnati Bengals 19-13 on Wildcard Weekend.
While much is being made of the prior meeting of just a month ago when the Patriots ran over the Texans 42-13, as Bill Belichick said this week, “the playoffs are a new game”. The winner will play the victor of the Baltimore – Denver game for the AFC Championship on January 20.
Let’s take a look at how the teams matchup:
Patriots Running Game:
Houston has improved in its run defense since the last meeting but it is still vulnerable to runs at the middle of the defense where they’re on their latest inside linebackers as they’ve been hit by injuries hard there. The Bengals BenJarvus Green-Ellis hit a few big runs there but Cincinnati wasn’t able to cash in. Bradie James and Barrett Ruud have to be considered the weak point of the Texans’ defense and I expect the Patriots will go right at them.
The Patriots can roll out Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen in the running game and each brings a different skill set to the table. Look for the Patriots to spread them out and try to hit the middle. I expect Houston to move J.J. Watt around in this one and would expect him to see a lot of time in the middle not only for a pass rush but to help in the running game.
While it is not going to be easy, I do believe that the Patriots can be effective in the running game by mixing things up and keeping the defense off-balance.
Texans Running Game:
The running game is what drives the Texans offense, they like to pound Arian Foster and set up easy 2nd and 3rd down and distances and then set up Matt Schaub with a play action pass down the field. Foster has rushed for over 100 yards in each of his three career post-season games and Houston will be looking to do so again.
He’s backed by the able Ben Tate who provides some excellent snaps while giving Foster a breather. The Texans like to run to the left, very rarely to the right and like to use that stretch run formation where they put Owen Daniels in motion and kick out the DE to get Foster to the second level.
In the first meeting that didn’t happen as Vince Wilfork was blowing up plays and getting penetration at the point of attack. Also, the linebackers, especially Donta’ Hightower was fast off the ball and getting into the backfield taking on lead blocker James Casey. The result was Foster had nowhere to run and had only 46 yards on 15 carries.
Look for the Patriots to be playing in a lot of base defense in this one. A big part of the equation will be if Brandon Spikes is healthy and ready to go. He’s excellent in run support and can be very disruptive in the running game.
Houston should counter by running some play action on first downs and attempt to get the linebackers coming in and throwing over the top of them to the tight ends. DEs Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will have to be aware of Schaub doing a bootleg to the opposite side. Bottom line here is, if the Patriots stop the running game, they win.
Patriots Passing Game:
The Texans shut down the Bengals passing game last week holding them to 0-9 on third downs. J.J. Watt was very disruptive and Kareem Jackson played very well. But Tom Brady and the Patriots aren’t the Bengals as Houston is well aware of since the first meeting.
Houston likes to rush five to get after the quarterback; in fact they do it more than any other team in the NFL. The flip side of the equation is, against five pass rushers, Brady’s numbers are 67% completion percentage, 1582 yards, 16 TDs and 0 INTs for a 135.6 quarterback rating.
In the first meeting, Brady took advantage of the aggressive play of safeties Glover Quin and Danieal Manning and with them biting hard on play action, he threw over the top of them and hit two long touchdowns. Jonathan Joseph was still hobbled in that one as well. And in Watt, the Texans have the great equalizer, the man who can single-handedly disrupt the passing game.
That’s what Houston will need to change the game, because Brady has too many weapons at his disposal for them to cover, they need the pressure to come up the middle and disrupt Brady’s ability to step up in the pocket.
Houston’s job got harder with Rob Gronkowski back as he missed the first meeting. As we mentioned earlier, look for Brady to target the ILBs James and Ruud and Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are huge mismatches against the linebackers as is Wes Welker underneath.
Texans Passing Game:
The running game has a big effect on the Texans passing game as they love to play action pass. In this game, I think they should pass more on first down to open up their running game and Matt Schaub certainly has some potent weapons at his disposal.
Andre Johnson, Owen Daniels, Kevin Walter and James Casey give Schaub plenty of targets to throw to when their play action is working.
In the first meeting, Schaub’s protection didn’t hold up well enough as the Patriots brought plenty of pressure and they did it with a variety of pass rushers. Chandler Jones was hobbled in the first meeting and with Rob Ninkovich now hobbled by a bad hip, he’ll be looked upon to provide even more. Look for Justin Francis and Jermaine Cunningham to come in for a lighter four DE front on just obvious passing downs.
The Patriots get the edge here as Stephen Gostkowski has played very well down the stretch for the Patriots. He hasn’t had to make many pressure kicks during the time but he’s been accurate and his kickoffs have been outstanding. Zoltan Mesko has gotten progressively better as the season has gone and is pinning opponents deep inside their territory.
The coverage units have been strong led by Pro-Bowl STs player Matthew Slater. The return game has still been mired in mediocrity on kickoffs however Wes Welker has stepped it a notch as the season has wound down in the punt return game.
Houston has former Patriots kicker Shayne Graham who has struggled at times this season, hitting on only 11 of 18 from 40 yards or better. Donnie Jones has been fantastic punting averaging over 47 yards per punt with 28 downed inside the 20 yard line and only 5 touchbacks.
The player to watch for Houston is Keshawn Martin who has done a very good job at returning both kicks and punts for the Texans. Bottom line is though, neither team wants their kicker on the field for anything other than extra points in this one.
“X“ – Factors:
All week we’ve been inundated with talk of the Jets games of 2010, first the Patriots crushing 45-3 win on MNF and then the Jets victory in the Divisional Playoff game. We feel we put those comparisons to bed with some points from earlier in the week.
Bottom line is, Houston did not play well down the stretch when their playoff destiny was firmly in their own hands. And they played up the earlier meeting as the biggest game in their team’s history. And they were routed, so if the Patriots jump out to an early lead in this one, one has to wonder if their confidence will take a blow here.
The Patriots, although a young team have a great veteran presence and have been here before, this is a team that came within a whisker of winning the Super Bowl last season and playing at home should be a huge advantage.
I think this one should be much closer, the Texans know what they did right and wrong in the last meeting and know what kind of effort they’ll need to come away with a victory. Schaub will be the key here, he’s going to have to step up and play a big game here. Last week the Houston coaches were in protection mode for Schaub, 49 of the 70 offensive plays went to either Foster or Daniels, that won’t get it done this week.
My big question would be whether Gary Kubiak will be aggressive enough to try to mix things up or stick with the “this is what we do” approach, which to me will lead to a sure defeat. We know Bill Belichick will do what it takes to win the game, his comments about “you don’t win a war by digging a foxhole and sitting in it, you have to attack,” speak of a team that will be aggressive in its play calling.
I think in the end the Patriots have too many weapons for the Texans to handle, they’re going to attack the middle of the field against the linebackers and when the safeties move up to help it will allow them to take a few shots down the field again.
The key for the Patriots is Brady, keep him clean and upright and they will find holes in that secondary…and they will. Patriots 31-21