On Sunday afternoon the New England Patriots will begin their playoff campaign when they welcome the Houston Texans into Gillette Stadium. This will be the second time these two have faced off in this venue this year as the Patriots hosted the Texans in week 14. The first contest between these two teams was a 42-14 blowout in favor of the Patriots but this time a trip to the AFC championship game is on the line.
The regular season ended about as well as possible for the Patriots this year. That game in week 14 between these two teams began a landslide for the Texans as they lost three of their last four games dropping from the top seed to the third seed in the AFC. The drop gave the Patriots the opportunity to move into the second seed securing a much needed first round bye. Even after beating a strong Cincinnati Bengals team last week, the Texans come into this game very much a slumping team.
Due to the bye, the Patriots are now as healthy as they could have hoped for. Prior to the bye week star tight end Rob Gronkowski had been out with a broken forearm and defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who leads the team in sacks and forced fumbles, suffered a hip injury during the final game of the season. The bye week allowed Ninkovich and others who were suffering from injuries to fully heal making the Patriots a much more dangerous team. Right now the Patriots are as healthy as they have been all season.
The Patriots offense this season has been the best in the league. Despite having key injuries throughout the year to Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Logan Mankins, and Sebastian Vollmer the Patriots led the league in both yards per game and points per game. The virtually unstoppable group is led by quarterback Tom Brady who had a MVP caliber season in 2012 throwing for 4,827 yards and 34 touchdowns. The last time these two teams met he completed 21 of 35 passes for 296 yards and 4 touchdowns.
The Texans offense is much different than the Patriots. They depend on one single player, Arian Foster. Foster had a strong 2012 season rushing for 1,424 yards. Last week he busted out for 140 yards against the Bengals helping lead his team to this game. In week 14 the Patriots were able to hold Foster to just 46 yards on 15 carries. For the Texans to have a chance Sunday Foster will have to perform at a much higher level than he did that week. If the Patriots can hold Foster as they did in week 14, the Texans will need a special performance by quarterback Matt Schaub. However, Schaub has been unremarkable this season.
The matchup that could decide this game is between the Patriots offense and the Texans defense. Defensively the Texans are one of the best in the league. They were ranked in the top ten this year in yards and points given up per game. While they are strong and deep throughout their defense, it all starts with defensive end J.J. Watt. Watt led the league in sacks this year with 20.5 and has frequently caused havoc on opposing offenses. Stopping Watt makes the Texans defense much weaker. The Texans defense will also be looking to abolish the memory of the drubbing taken in their last matchup where they conceded 419 yards and 42 points.
For the Patriots there has been some trouble on the defensive side of the ball recently. After struggling early in the season, the Patriots defense began to get healthy and their play showed that. Then in a surprising move the Patriots traded for cornerback Aqib Talib which improved the defense even more. The final move that saw the defense improve greatly was shifting Pro Bowl cornerback Devin McCourty to safety which he played with ease. But just as the defense began to produce rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was injured forcing McCourty back to cornerback creating instability again. Sunday the Patriots may need to depend on that rather unstable secondary if the Texans choose to test them.
While the Patriots controlled the last game between these two teams it didn’t seem too important at the time. The Texans were rolling and nearly secured the top seed in the conference while the Patriots had virtually secured at least the third seed. Now the two teams will face off at the same venue for the chance to play in the AFC championship game. For the Texans it will be a chance to make to the conference championship game for the first time in franchise history. But for the Patriots it will be just one more step as they attempt to advance to the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year.