From a sports column in The Boston Globe to talk radio to the average fan on the street, there certainly doesn’t seem to be any reason for the Texans to show up Sunday at Gillette Stadium for their AFC divisional playoff with the Patriots.
After all, the Patriots hammered them 42-14 in a game that wasn’t that close on Dec. 10 at the same venue with the same type of pleasantly mild weather expected.
The Patriots didn’t even have Rob Gronkowski that night. The Texans receivers were running open all over the field in the first half. It was “the biggest game in franchise history” according to Andre Johnson.
And still, the Patriots throttled Houston so badly that it sent the No. 1 team in the AFC into a spiral it still hasn’t recovered from. The Texans hung on to beat the Colts at home the next week, but with a chance to secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC, they lost badly at home to Minnesota before gagging at Indy to finish 12-4.
They were hardly convincing last week in beating the Bengals. Consider, Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton was horrid all day long, and if he connects with a wide-open A.J. Green for a touchdown in the final three minutes, the Bengals win, 20-19. Instead, the Texans live to fight another AFC playoff battle.
Which brings us to Sunday.
With all of the aforementioned factors, with the Patriots having rested their banged-up stars, with the Patriots super-motivated to redeem a pair of Super Bowl losses to the Giants, what could possibly go wrong on Sunday at Gillette Stadium?
I asked Bill Belichick this week about trying to repeat what the Patriots did in December. In short, he reminded me, it’s not quite that simple.
“I think it’s about creating a game plan that you feel like can be successful against a team that you’re playing,” he began. “The way certain plays matched up in the first game, first of all, I don’t even know if we’re going to run the same plays or they’re going to run the same plays so that it could even possibly match up in this game.
“But even if it did, the chances of it matched up, the number of plays that we run and the number of defenses that they run, for it to be the exact same is infinitesimal. It’s not going to happen. I don’t think that’s really important. It’s about being prepared to deal with whatever it is we have to deal with on Sunday and going out there and executing it well. It’s not trying to replicate a matchup, you can’t do it.”
So, what Belichick is saying is what he always says -- each game has its own identity, not based on past results.
We’ve heard all about two years ago when the Patriots hammered the Jets, 45-3, in December only to lose to them, 28-21, in this same divisional round. We’ve heard to a lesser degree about 2009 when the Patriots were 10-6 and big favorites against the Ravens, only to lose, 33-14.
I’ll grant you that after the obvious (Brady injury, act of God, widespread flu in Foxboro) the list isn’t very long.
But, as Bill Belichick reminded me this week, you do need to plan for the worst-case and every-case scenario.
Here are 10 things that could keep things too close for comfort on Sunday.
1. The offensive line slumps at the wrong time.
By Logan Mankins' own admission, this game is going to be very tough because of pass-rushers J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith. The two of them were non-factors in the first game because the Patriots were able to run Stevan Ridley enough to make play-action effective and because the offensive line was great taking turns on Smith and Watt.
2. Tom Brady’s no-huddle is out of step.
Again, a nugget from Mankins on no-huddle: “Sometimes it screws us up if we’re expecting them to be somewhere and they’re not there [laughs]. So it works good and it works bad sometimes.” Brady depends on rhythm, and the one thing the man-to-man D of Wade Phillips can do when effective is be disruptive at the line of scrimmage.
3. The secondary gets burned.
The secondary has made huge improvements since Devin McCourty went to safety and started calling the signals back there and ball-hawking like he did against Matt Schaub on Dec. 10. But if Alfonzo Dennard is unable to go with his knee -- as was the case in the final two games -- McCourty will have to go back corner and Patrick Chung will be the safety. The Pats simply are better with McCourty and Steve Gregory at safety.
4. Rob Ninkovich is still hurt and the pass rush can’t get to Matt Schaub.
Ninkovich, who injured his left hip in the season finale, has been practicing this week, and he practiced during the bye week. But being able to practice and being able to provide the pass rush he’s delivered this season are different things. We should know early on if Ninkovich is healthy and ready to provide the edge rush the Pats need.
5. Arian Foster runs like he’s got Dan Shaughnessy’s column on his facemask.
It was the buzz early on in the week. A Pro Bowl running back changes his Twitter avatar to text from a column ripping the Texans as frauds. Foster ran the ball 15 times for just 46 yards in the first game. The Patriots are not likely to be that fortunate again.
6. Wade Phillips shocks the world and goes all Rex Ryan on Tom Brady.
The key to defending the Patriots is changing looks on defense, the one thing even Bill Belichick mentioned this week Phillips and the Texans do not do. Two years ago, the Jets dropped eight, nine and sometimes 10 into coverage, showing zone, man and different combinations of each, confusing Brady for most of the game. It would be stunning if Phillips went primarily to zone defense and got out of his single-high safety look that is a trademark of his blitz-heavy scheme.
7. Gary Kubiak takes some risks.
Last week, the Texans had fourth-and-1 twice near midfield with a six-point lead and the best running back in the conference ripping through the Bengals to the tune of 140 yards. With a chance to ice the game, the Texans coach punted twice. Had Dalton not badly overthrown Green, Kubiak would’ve been persona non grata in Houston. Remember what Belichick said this week: “You don’t win a war by digging a foxhole and sitting in it. You have to go out there and attack. You have to go out there and make the plays you need to make to win. It’s a one-game season.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
8. The Patriots turn the ball over.
Brady threw a pair of interceptions against San Francisco and Jacksonville. The Patrriots lost the turnover battle to San Francisco, 4-2, and the game. They were lucky not to lose to the 2-14 Jaguars. Brady is 6-6 in his last 12 playoff games. Turnovers factored heavily in every one of those six losses.
9. The Patriots struggle on special teams.
The Patriots completed a miraculous comeback from 31-3 down to San Francisco to tie the game, but on the ensuing kickoff they allowed LaMichael James to return it 62 yards to the Patriots' 38. On the next play, Colin Kaepernick connected with Michael Crabtree for the game-winning touchdown. The other concern has to be kicker Stephen Gostkowski. He struggled midway through the season with accuracy but finished strong, converting 8-of-9 field goals in his last five games. But the length on the kickoffs dropped off significantly in the final quarter of the season, something to keep an eye on.
10. The ghosts of 2011 resurface.
This seems very unlikely with mentally strong teams like the Patriots. But the players are human, and if weird things start to happen like Chung calling an audible for a fake punt at his own 37 late in the second quarter, then you wonder. There seemed no way the Jets could win that day until that play happened.
So, there you have it. Call it the Shaughnessy counterbalance. Call it an impartial voice. Call it negative thinking. Whatever you call it, consider it fair warning.
Truth be told, several of the above have to happen for the Patriots to lose this game. But as Belichick would tell you, if you don’t pay attention to history, you’re doomed to repeat it.
To the Trags Bag, which was full of suggestions on what could happen to make this a game Sunday -- some serious, some not so much.
@MonotoneofBill Worried the scoreboard cannot accommodate three digit scoring.
@FlyingOrr Worst case scenario, Gronk gets hurt. Not projecting it though.
@Mmb728 Tunovers, long Texan drives, spikes covering Daniels, blocking Watt
@AllThingsPats An 83-yard run by Foster - déjà vu to the Ravens playoff game
@FitzyGFY Umm, that they lose (washes mouth out w/soap)
@BostonGal4Ever Not containing JJ Watt. O-line has got to give Brady the protection he needs to throw the ball down field.
@0_LayDX Badly timed turnovers, dumb penalties in red zone, Texans punter puts Pats in terrible field position constantly.
Joe Gill: [The Patriots] come down with food poisoning.
Ian Browne: That Arian Foster thinks he is Ray Rice, 2009.
Matthew Biele: If the Pats don’t get turnovers they will not win. Their D isn’t good enough but has been improving.
Here are my fearless predictions for what has traditionally been called the best weekend in the NFL.
Patriots 34, Texans 23 -- The Texans shock the world and hold the Patriots under 40, but only because New England runs the ball down their throat with Stevan Ridley after building a 21-point lead. The Pats aren't about to let recent history repeat in this divisional matchup.
Broncos 27, Ravens 20 -- The Ravens defense finally runs out of gas in the fourth quarter and Peyton Manning fires a pair of late touchdown passes to avoid his eighth loss in a playoff opener. Brady and Manning will happen in Denver.
Packers 24, 49ers 17 -- The 49ers' glorious ride with Colin Kaepernick ends as Aaron Rodgers throws three touchdown passes, getting on a Super Bowl-type of roll.
Seahawks 27, Falcons 26 -- The Falcons' misery in the playoffs continues as Matt Bryant misses an extra point. The NFL gods want a rematch of Packers-Seahawks in the NFC championship, and they want it on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.