Not too long ago the Texans (13-4) were seen as the best team in football, with the most well-rounded personnel. But after the regular season beatdown at the hands of the Patriots Houston lost three of its last four regular season games. It got back on track to some degree on Wild Card Weekend with a win over Cincinnati, but it's an entirely different beast looking to head to New England and upset Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the No. 2 seeded Patriots (12-4). New England is rested and ready coming out of the bye week, looking to start another run to a Super Bowl by taking care of business. Ghosts of playoffs past have been brought up this week with comparisons to a home playoff loss to the Jets after the 2010 season, but Patriots veterans seem poised to ensure history does not repeat itself. Sunday's 4:30 kickoff at Gillette is the last of what promises to be a very entertaining weekend of NFL playoff action. As you take in all the football fun and prepare for the next biggest game of the season for New England, kick back and enjoy this Houston-may-have-a-problem Texans Edition Pre-Game Six-Pack!
1. Foster care – There is little doubt who is at the center of everything the Texans want to do on offense – Arian Foster. The running back churned out 1,400 yards and 15 touchdowns while also catching 40 passes with another two scores. He's a true workhorse who had 20-plus carries in 10 games and a league-high 351 for the season. He moves the chains himself and sets up the play-action passing game. He had 140 yards last weekend against a physical Bengals front and top-10 defense. He's had 132 yards or more in each of his first three career playoff games dating back to last season. Heck, the first two times he touched the ball in the first game between these two teams in December Foster picked up 12 (nullified by penalty) and 15 yards. But the Patriots – and the scoreboard – held Foster in check that day to the tune of 15 carries for just 46 yards (3.1 avg.). The Patriots run defense had a couple hiccups during the regular season – including a season-high 180 yards allowed in a December loss to the 49ers – but for the most part has been solid. Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes seem poised to get the job done. The lone real concern for the run defense is the health of Rob Ninkovich. The defensive end seemingly avoided what appeared to be a serious hip injury that had him limping off in the finale. He's practiced the last two weeks, but that doesn't mean he's at full strength. His first chance to really test his ability to set the edge in the run game will come early on against Houston. If he's limited or not up to the task, that could be an issue. Otherwise, expect Houston to try to run and the Patriots ninth-ranked rush defense to be ready for the trench fight.
2. Start strong – There is little question that the game got out of hand in the first meeting. Houston seemed ill-prepared for the spot and the prime-time road environment. A couple plays went against the Texans and suddenly it was a 14-0 first-quarter deficit for the visitors. That's not a good spot for how the Houston team is built. They're not set up for big comebacks. Conversely, the Patriots are and always have been a great front-running team. It allows Brady to control the pace, tempo and style of the game while his defense can play with a little more freedom. All the way around on both sides of the ball the start to this game is huge. Houston needs to keep pace early, preferably in a low-scoring fashion. New England needs to take away the visitor's will and remind them of the previous beatdown and why they're playing this game on the road instead of at Reliant Stadium. And for the Patriots, one of the team's only two postseason home losses under Belichick came at the hands of the Ravens in 2009 when they were knocked off the field from almost the first snap. That can happen sometimes in postseason games. The old saying is that you can't win a game in first quarter, but you can lose one. The Patriots can indeed likely win this game in the first quarter while the Texans could pretty realistically lose it. The converse of that is not true, so the first 10 or 15 minutes are critical to the Texans chances.
3. Dim Watt – If Foster is the obvious focal point of preparing for the Houston offense, then J.J. Watt is the even more obvious choice when breaking down the Texans defense. The presumed Defensive Player of the Year can do it all. He's the Texan's leading tackler. He led the NFL with 20.5 sacks. He knocked down 16 passes, forced four fumbles and recovered two. He was one of the few Texans that seemingly showed up for the first meeting. He only had four tackles (and no sacks), but did forced a Danny Woodhead fumble downfield that showed his motor, hustle and athletic ability. Watt generally plays the strong side, so to some degree the Patriots can choose where he lines up based on formation and motions. But that doesn't mean he's any easier to block. The entire line will have to deal with Watt at some point, and the communication in such battles will be key. The New England line seems to be as healthy as it has been all year, which is a good sign for this matchup. Watt has had at least one sack in each of his first three playoff games dating back to last year, when he also had an interception return for a touchdown. Watt is capable of dominating a game, ruining life for an offense and being an emotional dynamo for the Texans. He's the type of guy who could fluster Brady early and often. The Patriots know they have to deal with that. But knowing is only half the battle.
- Schaub's job** – Media and fans love to boil down games and matchups into as simple terms as possible. If that's the goal, then simply put the Texans chances come down to how Schaub plays. He got his first career playoff win last week. He completed 76 percent of his passes. But he really didn't make any plays, especially in the red zone. A Texans team that had been very good in the red zone early in the year, struggled late in the season and on Wild Card Weekend. Schaub needs to make some plays if the Texans have a chance at the upset. He can't be happy to check down and complete a high percentage. He – sort of like Colin Kaepernick did for the 49ers – must get the ball down the field at times. He must challenge a Patriots secondary that's still coming back from injuries and trying to prove itself. He made a key mistake with an interception to Devin McCourty in the first game. With Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard expected back, the Patriots secondary should be more settled and McCourty will be back at safety. Still, the group has its warts and if Schaub wants to be seen as a postseason winner he'll have to attack those. Andre Johnson put up 95 yards against the Patriots the first time. He can make a lot of plays, but not without Schaub's help. Foster can set up the play-action. Johnson can do his part. Owen Daniels can do his in the middle of the field. But in the end it all comes down to Schaub proving that he's ready to shoulder the load and do what championship-caliber quarterbacks do. If he can't, Houston has no chance.
5. Rematch reality – Some wanted to pooh-pooh the rematch story. Some wanted to over emphasize it. Others wanted to make comparisons to the Jets blowout and playoff rematch in 2010. Many thought that comparison was ridiculous. But the fact that these teams met just a month ago and the game was a lopsided blowout could have an actual bearing on the way this one plays out. First, you have to think the Texans will make some changes. If they want to win, they'll probably have to be more aggressive on offense. On defense, they may decide (like Baltimore and the Jets did in past postseason rematches) to blitz Brady much less in the postseason on the way to trying to get the road win. There will be a little bit of an adjustment in game plans that will lead to an adjustment during the game. It's the old game of chess that goes on each week. It also will be interesting to see if the Patriots use the no-huddle, up-tempo approach on offense. New England used a ton of shotgun and limited no huddle in the first meeting. While the Patriots are the ultimate game plan team, the Texans reputation is more of "they do what they do." If they don't alter from that at least a bit, the road upset will be difficult.
6. Gronk, Reed, Joseph difference – Beyond scheme, there are some clear personnel differences for this rematch – most notably Rob Gronkowski. The All-Pro tight end missed five games with his broken arm before returning in the finale. He seemed to be cautious with his arm against Miami, especially blocking. He did catch a touchdown in that game and should be ready for the passing game in this one. Even if he's only a decoy, he gives the Texans defense a lot more to deal with and opens up more for his teammates. This could be the first chance we get to see New England's top-four targets (Gronk, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd) healthy since opening day. On the other side of the line of scrimmage, Houston has Brooks Reed (who SI's Peter King picked as his preseason Defensive Player of the Year) back and Johnathan Joseph is far more healthy than he was the first time. That gives the Texans defense a boost to maybe counteract New England's advancements. The Patriots – with only five guys on the injury report, all listed as probable – are as healthy as they've been all year. Houston seems pretty healthy in its own right. That's what you hope for in a big game, so that the outcome is based on performance not personnel.
The Patriots are a heavy favorite. They earned that right with the win in the regular season game that played a big role in securing the home field for this matchup. New England seems pretty loose, healthy and energetic after a week off. Houston is a balanced team finishing in the top 10 in both offense and defense. Both teams gave up exactly 331 points during the regular season. But all the numbers aside, I just can't see Schaub and Gary Kubiak coming to New England and beating Brady and Belichick in the postseason. Coaches and quarterbacks are a huge part of winning in the NFL, especially in the postseason and I don't think Houston measures up right now. I think the Patriots will start fast on offense, spreading the Texans out and looking to get the ball to a fully healthy corps of weapons. Defensively I think the Patriots will slow Foster down enough to make Houston try to throw, which I actually think is the way the visitors can win. But the Texans passing game is less impressive when not working off a successfully running game. As long as Ninkovich can play a decent game on his hip, I think the Patriots defensive front is as ready to compete as it's been all season. The secondary should also be as ready as ever. The Patriots are at full health and full power. That's bad news for the Texans. Third down and the red zone will be key as always. I don't expect too many turnovers in either direction, so it's all really about execution. I give a big edge in that area, in all phases, to the Patriots. Put it all together and it's a 28-13 Patriots victory. And another trip to the AFC Championship Game!