An impressive, circuitous regular season that led to 14 wins put the 2016 Patriots (14-2) in the position they now reside, as the No. 1 seed in the AFC hosting Houston on Saturday night at 8:15 p.m. at Gillette Stadium in the divisional playoff.
Hard work pays off and the reward was a Texans (10-7) opponent that has been installed as one of the biggest underdogs in postseason history.
Regardless of how you measure things, New England is the better team in this matchup in virtually every area across the board.
Bill Belichick vs. Bill O'Brien? Tom Brady vs. Brock Osweiler? The NFL's No. 1 scoring defense vs. the NFL's No. 1 defense in yards allowed.
PFW's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots Divisional Playoff game against the Houston Texans.
The tale of the tape tells the story of what should be a Patriots victory on the way to a record-setting sixth straight AFC title game, one in Foxborough thanks to New England's work in the regular season. To the regular season victor go the spoils.
Maybe former Patriot and current retirement-pondering Houston defensive tackle Vince Wilfork put it best when he said earlier this week that the Texans would "have to play probably the best game of the season to actually be able to hang with" New England.
Not beat. Just hang with.
Under such circumstances any other team might be a consideration for a trap game, a letdown, even in the win-or-game-home pressure of the postseason.
But a Belichick-coached team? A Brady-led squad? No way. The two leaders' laser focus is part of the reason a Patriots win -- over a team New England shut out 27-0 back in Week 3 under the leadership of first-time rookie starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett - seems so unwaveringly likely.
Blowout win? Outsiders in the media or fandom may ponder such primetime possibilities, but Brady believably bemoans such talk.
"I view it as the biggest game that we've played all season against the best defense that we've played all season," Brady declared. "I don't see any letdown from us. That's ridiculous to think that. I'm preparing like this is the hardest game we've faced all season, which it will be, and it means the most. There's only one priority for all of us this week, and that's to be at our best mentally, physically, emotionally for three hours on Saturday night starting at 8:00 p.m. All of my attention is focused on those three hours and getting prepared for that moment so that we can go out and play with anticipation and confidence against the best defense we've played all season. There's nothing easy about it."
That's Brady's story, and he's sticking to it. As for Saturday night, here are a few keys to keep an eye on as primetime playoff action returns to Gillette Stadium for all the frenzied Foxborough fans to enjoy!
Stay trendy- A big part of the Patriots impressive run down the stretch of the regular season came via the turnover. New England notched 14 takeaways over the final six games of the year, compared to just three giveaways in that stretch. That pushed the team up the rankings to finish third in the NFL for the regular season with a plus-12 turnover differential. Such clean offense and opportunistic defense in terms of turnovers is a great first step toward victory in any game. It's even more important as a heavy favorite, because there is no faster way to get upset than via the turnover. Houston tied for 26th in the NFL during the regular season with a minus-7 turnover differential. On paper the turnover is one of the many advantages the Patriots have, but New England needs to transfer that theoretical advantage to the playing field. Brady and the offense need to continue to take care of the ball. And the defense needs to continue to force or at least accept turnovers.
No touching Tommy - Brady is one of the many Patriots who benefited from the bye week. He was full participation in practice this week despite his thigh issue that dates back to a hit from Seattle's Kam Chancellor on Nov. 13. Still, protecting Brady from the likes of Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and the rest of a still-dangerous while J.J. Watt-less Texans front is a priority for the New England offensive line. Romeo Crennel has diverse personnel and schemes to throw at the Patriots front. So it's not just on Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon and the rest to physically get the job done as blockers. Center David Andrews and the line's calls and communication need to be on point as well. Hard to draw up a Houston upset plan without including the pass rush getting to Brady early and often. But, Houston ranked just 17th in the league in sacks per pass play during the year and the Patriots line has answered the call nearly every game this fall. No reasonable reason to think that will change now.
No run zone - The run defense has been one of the many strengths of the Patriots defense. New England hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown since Oct. 30 against Buffalo. (Which is to say the unit hasn't allowed a ground score since Jamie Collins was traded!) The Patriots finished the year tied for the third-best rush defense in the NFL. Alan Branch and Co. allowed just 3.9 yards per carry on the season. New England didn't allow an opponent to average better than 4 yards a carry in any of the final six games of the year. Clearly stopping the run will be a focus this week against Lamar Miller, Houston's 1,000-yard back. Miller ran it 22 times for 84 yards in the regular season battle. He carried it 31 times in last weekend's win over Oakland. Given the limitation for the Texans at the quarterback position it's likely O'Brien will look to establish the run early and often once again. That's easier said than done against this Dont'a Hightower-led group that plays stout and tackles well. Continuing the success on run defense will put immense pressure on the inept Osweiler-led passing game. It's a first step toward what should be defensive success for the home squad.
Balance beams- The Patriots offense has been extremely balanced most of the season. The team had 28 or more rushing attempts in 11 games, 39-plus in two of the final three weeks. The rushing attack - led by LeGarrette Blount but with Dion Lewis taking a big load down the stretch - has been a major complementary force to the point that the play-action game has been as good a weapon for Brady as it's been in a long time. There has also been impressive balance in the passing game that has a depth of trusted weapons that is uniquely productive. Josh McDaniels has the tools and the options to do just about anything he wants on offense. And that's what he should do. Another balanced approach with Brady handing off almost as often as he drops back to throw puts a lot of stress on a defense. The Texans are a good defense. But, forcing a team to focus equally on the ground and air attacks can spread even the most talented units thin. New England has that ability and should put it to use.
Heat up the cold - The forecast for Saturday night calls for temperatures in the 20s and light wind. It doesn't project to be a "weather" game, but it's not going to be too warm, either. Brady and the Patriots are experts at playing in almost any conditions. They'll be fine. The cold may not kill the Texans, but it will be far from an advantage for the southern visitors, either. It would also be favorable to see the Patriots get off to a hot start to warm up the home crowd and give the Houston squad more reason to pack it in. The longer an underdog hangs around the more dangerous that team is, obviously. The Patriots scored on their first four possessions to take care of business in Miami, including an opening touchdown. Scores came on the first two possessions the week before that. The "finish strong" mentality included scoring early to set a tone in the last couple weeks. That would be a nice plan of attack and execution in this expected playoff win.
Do Your Job! - Though the Texans have some obvious talent at various positions, the divide between these two playoff teams is pretty significant. New England is better. They should have the upper hand in nearly every measurable area. Now it comes down to execution. Belichick's organization mantra is the overall game plan - Do Your Job. If the individual players do that to anywhere near their capabilities they will take care of business against Houston. Sometimes that's easier said than done. This time, it should just get done.
Prediction - Teams have to show respect to their opponents. The Patriots have done that this week. But the media and fans don't follow such rules. Houston is by far the inferior team. They will be going for an historic upset. They will not get it. New England should be able to control the ball on offense, both through the air and on the ground. Blount's illness could be a concern, but Lewis has been able to handle a big chunk of the the load down the stretch, too. Brady has endless weapons to turn to through the air, able to spread out a solid pass defense to get the matchups he wants. Defensively it's nearly impossible to imagine Miller running wild. It's even harder to imagine Osweiler skulking into Foxborough and putting up what would need to be a career day. Maybe O'Brien, Crennel and Company will have some insider tricks to pull off. Maybe. It still won't be near enough. New England will roll to the 38-13 victory, beating Houston to get one step closer to Houston and Super Bowl LI.
What do you think of our keys? Let us know with a comment below!