Who feels the most pressure this week, the Patriots or the Texans? One could argue both sides. Tom Brady has been average in his past 12 playoff starts, going 6-6. However, the Texans look to advance to their first Conference Championship game after a disappointing playoff loss last year and stumbling down the stretch in 2012.
New England is the heavy favorite and rightfully so. However, this is not the Tim Tebow led Denver Broncos. The Texans are not a gimmicky comedy act worth hardly the price of a $10 admission at some dive in Boston. Unless you count the Texans as a favorable match up (which many have), the Patriots have no easy paths on their road to the Superbowl.
The Texans and Patriots finally boast healthy teams, which neither could field in their December 10th match up at Gillette Stadium. Linebacker Brooks Reed now lines up with defensive lineman J.J. Watt to lead a formidable Texans defense. Tight end Garrett Graham also returns and allows Houston to run more 3 tight end sets, which bodes well for their play action and running game. If the Patriots fail to stop star running back Arian Foster, it only makes sense for the Texans to lean heavily on their tight ends to set up the play action.
Houston thrives off zone blocking, boot legs and, as noted, the play action. In the two team's last matchup, Houston had success when they cut down the Patriot’s larger defensive lineman from the backside, ensuring smooth running lanes for Foster. The Patriots countered by setting the edge and aggressively attacking up field with Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Don’te Hightower.
New England can’t forget that they were ranked 9the against the run this year, allowing just 102 yards a game. Stopping Arian Foster is one of the keys to victory.
It also helped that the Patriots scored 42 points on December 10th and effectively took the Texans out of what they felt most comfortable with—running. They forced Schuab to drop back and pass, which he’s notorious for struggling with. Against the Colts, Schuab was sacked four times in drop back situations and threw a pick six last week against the Bengals. If the Patriots can put the game in Schuab’s hands, their chance of winning increases significantly .
The Patriots, in the most obvious statement of 2013, must play sound, complementary football. The better question, however, is: How do they do this?
With cornerbacks Aqib Talb and Alfonso Dennard returning to the field, the Patriots can play more aggressive at the line of scrimmage. Setting the edge and playing the gaps at the line will cut off Foster’s routes and hem him back into the middle of the field, something a notoriously slower team like the Patriots loves to do. Scoring quickly and not providing the Texans with extra chances in short field, will allow the Patriots to control the game.
The Texans do not resemble the Tim Tebow led Denver Broncos. New England is the heavy favorites, but Houston is still a dangerous football team. In 2012, the Texans have shown what they are capable of. But due to their shaky end to the season, they are now answering critics questions.
Are the Texans a sleeping giant? Or are they an extinct volcano no longer able to produce the seismic waves and molten lava that the NFL once felt and feared?
We’ll find out Sunday.