The Patriots routed the Houston Texans, 42-14, a little more than a month ago. So what will make Sunday's meeting in the divisional round of the playoffs any different? Well, for starters the Patriots can count on a better overall effort from the visitors this time around.
Assuming that is the case, the Patriots will need to be at their best in order to advance to the AFC title game. There are a variety of areas that could be keys to a potential victory. Obviously, Tom Brady playing at his normal high level would appear to be one – but he's vital to the team's success every week so we're not including him in this exercise.
Otherwise, which area of the Patriots do you feel is most important to victory?
PFW's Andy Hart says ...
The only chance the Texans have of riding into Foxborough and pulling off the upset is if Matt Schaub can make his fair share of plays in the passing game. Houston's strengths – defense and Arian Foster – are good enough to where they're expected to contribute. But Schaub needs to prove he can make plays down the field, continue drives on third down and put the ball in the end zone, which he didn't do in his first-career playoff win last weekend against the Bengals.
As such, it will be up to New England's much-maligned defensive backfield to keep that from happening. First, Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard need to prove themselves healthy enough to return to action at corner. That will allow Devin McCourty to bump back to safety and bring the communication and stability he's brought to that spot. As a group they must keep Andre Johnson from making plays and getting down the field, and must keep Owen Daniels from extending drives in the middle of the field.
San Francisco came into Gillette Stadium with a similar reputation as the Texans, but unlike Houston the 49ers were able to play confidently in the passing game, get the ball over the top and into the end zone and take it to Tom Brady and the Patriots. It's up to the back end of the New England pass defense to ensure that Schaub doesn't make a name for himself at that group's expense. Coral the Texans passing attack and the next stop for the Patriots will be the AFC title game.
PFW's Paul Perillo says ...
The offensive line
Whenever the Patriots struggle to win games – whether it's in the regular season or the playoffs – usually it's because Tom Brady doesn't get a chance to get comfortable in the pocket. Obviously, in order for Brady to get comfortable he has to receive solid pass protection from his five big friends up front.
The offensive line has done a great job of keeping things together this season. It's a group that underwent significant change entering the season with long-time starters Matt Light (retired) and Dan Koppen (released) removed from the equation. Injuries were also a constant factor with Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer all missing games at various points.
Yet, through it all Brady was protected well for the most part, and it won't be easy to keep that going against the Texans. J.J. Watt is just one of many players Houston has that could make life miserable on the Patriots offense. Brooks Reed, Connor Barwin, Antonio Smith and Whitney Mercilus all are capable of getting to the quarterback.
If the Patriots offensive line performs well, the offense will put points on the board, and that will lead to victory.
Now it's the fans turn to cast their vote in this week's Samsonite Make Your Case poll question.