Bill Belichick said Sunday that when it comes to preparing for Sunday’s divisional playoff matchup between the Patriots and Texans, you shouldn’t go looking for hints in the regular-season matchup between the two games. Despite the fact that New England crushed Houston 42-14 the first time around, Belichick said the upcoming game is going to have a whole lot of implications when it comes to figuring out what happens this time around.
“When you play a team twice during the season, the games are totally different -- they never go the same way,” Belichick said on a conference call with the media on Sunday afternoon. ”We’ll be able to certainly look at some of the matchups individually, guys that faced each in the game. As far as plays and calls and things like that matching up, I’m sure they’ll have some new wrinkles, I’m sure we’ll have some too. It will be totally different.”
Belichick said that watching the Texans against the Bengals in their wild-card matchup on Saturday, he was able to spot “a couple pieces that were specific for Cincinnati -- not revolutionary, but they geared more to their coverage of [A.J.] Green and things like [their] formation. Cincinnati stuff.”
“We have to be ready for all the things that [the Texans] do -- the percentages, what they’ll try to feature against us. We just need a week of preparation and take from the Cincinnati game what we can,” Belichick said. “There are some good examples of things we can learn that game -- but ultimately our game, our matchups are different than theirs, and will be different from the first game.”
To that point, here are five reasons why the first meeting of the season between the Patriots and Texans has very little to do with what will happen on Sunday:
Rob Gronkowski: The biggest and most obvious of the differences. The big tight end was on the shelf the first time these two teams met on Dec. 10 -- he was sidelined because of a broken arm. With Gronkowski out, the Patriots leaned heavily on Aaron Hernandez (eight catches on 11 targets for 58 yards and two touchdowns) and Brandon Lloyd (seven catches on nine targets for 89 yards and a touchdown). If he’s healthy this time around (and that’s still a big if), Gronkowski’s presence will change the way the New England offense operates, both in the passing game and in the run game (before he went down, Gronkowski was one of the best blocking tight end in the league).
As a whole, the Patriots are healthier -- it’s not just Gronkowski. The Patriots were in real need of the bye week from an overall health perspective, and took advantage to make sure key players like Gronkowski, Logan Mankins, Aaron Hernandez and Aqib Talib had the chance to heal up. (If there’s a defensive equivalent to Gronkowski, it could be Talib -- the cornerback played the first half the first time around against the Texans before suffering a hip injury and sitting for the second half. If the Patriots get Talib for the full 60 minutes this time around, it’ll change things.) In addition, New England will also have the services of Jermaine Cunningham this time around -- when the initial matchup took place, he was serving a four-game ban for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
In cases like this, teams very rarely do the same thing twice: You’ll see both the Patriots and Texans go back to things that worked in the first meeting -- for example, expect both teams to use play action to their advantage again this time around -- but chances are good that those things will either feature different personnel groupings or slight tweaks to disguise what might be coming this time around. It’s unique that New England will be facing a non-divisional opponent twice in one year. While you want to keep things disguised from divisional opponents you know you’ll face twice a year, there’s a unique challenge that comes from facing a non-divisional opponent in that you’ve already emptied a sizable portion of your playbook the first time around. Regardless, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some new stuff from both sides this time around.
One other thing the Texans might want to reconsider the second time around is how they try and attack quarterback Tom Brady. At least statistically, Houston sent more extra pressure more often than almost any other team in the league, and in the first game, Brady took advantage, throwing three of his four touchdown passes on plays where there was extra pressure sent his way. If defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and the Texans try and do the same thing this time around, look for them to try and do a better job when it comes to disguising how they operate.
Changes in the Texans lineup on both sides of the ball: In the first game, tight end Garrett Graham wasn’t available because of a concussion. While Graham isn’t a primary target for quarterback Matt Schaub (he had 28 catches on 38 targets for 263 yards and three TDs this season), he remains an important puzzle piece for the Houston offense, particularly when it comes to working in the red zone. His return would also set the table nicely for the Texans to run some three-tight end sets with Owen Daniels and James Casey.
In addition, the Texans were missing linebacker Brooks Reed (groin), defensive back Alan Ball (foot) and starting tackle Derek Newton (knee) the first time around. All four played in Saturday’s wild-card win over the Bengals. Meanwhile, linebacker Darryl Sharpton (hip), who had six tackles in the first game between the two teams, has been placed on injured reserve, and Houston has called upon Barrett Ruud to start in his place.
“Certainly a good game to watch is the most recent one,” said Belichick when asked about scouting the Texans this time around. “As we pointed out before with some of the players like [Brooks] Reed and [Alan] Ball, guys like that, [Derek] Newton, there are guys that we didn’t face last time.”
The Patriots defense is better, and the secondary has had more time to play together: The first Houston came represented a high-water mark for the New England defense -- in that game, the Texans crossed the New England 30-yard line just once in the first half, and didn’t get into the Patriots’ red zone until it was 28-0 midway through the third quarter. Eight of Houston’s 13 drives went for four plays or less, and the Texans were 4-for-14 on third down and 0-for-2 on fourth down. It also marked the end of a five-game stretch where the Patriots allowed fewer points than they did the game before: Beginning with the Nov. 11 game against the Bills and running through the win over the Texans, opposing offenses have scored 31, 24, 19, 16 and 14 points against New England in successive games.
New England defensive backs -- particularly the starters (Talib and Alfonzo Dennard and corner and Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory at safety) have had more of an opportunity to play together since that Dec. 10 win over Houston, and that increased level of continuity and consistency is a big plus for a group of corners and safeties that are still getting used to play alongside each other. In addition, the change in the overall numbers isn’t overly dramatic, but they’ve certainly been trending in the right direction since that game. Since the first Texans game, the following numbers have all decreased: points per game, average passing yards, average rushing yards and total average yards allowed per game. In addition, the Patriots have increased their takeaway ratio.
The Texans have (presumably) learned from their mistakes: Houston was overwhelmed right out of the gate in the first meeting between the two teams: They took some bad penalties (three flags for 36 yards in the first 16 minutes of the game). Four of their 18 plays from scrimmage in the first quarter were for negative yardage, and they fumbled and had an interception before the start of the second. As a result, the Patriots jumped to a 14-0 lead after one quarter and never looked back. Now that they’ve seen the bright lights, they need to understand the value of a quick and efficient start against New England.
(In this same vein, it’s obviously a colossal point of emphasis every week to get a quick start, but it’s particularly true when it comes to the Texans. Much of Houston’s offense is predicated on playing with a lead -- the Texans running game is at its’ best when they’re running with a lead, grinding down the clock and chipping away at an opposing defense. And their ability to run the ball consistently feeds into their best offensive asset -- Matt Schaub’s ability to work play action. One of the things the Patriots did very well in the first game was to make them play from behind, abandon the run and spread things out. That’s not their forte. Getting on top against them early remains paramount.)