BOSTON (CBS) — Normally, when a football team gets a matchup against a team it whooped less than a month prior, fans all across the land rejoice for what should be another romp. In the case of the Patriots and Texans, though, that’s just not the case in New England — and with good reason.
For one, there is the tidbit from the Elias Sports Bureau, which noted that when a team beats another team by four touchdowns and then meets them again in the playoffs, they’re just 11-11.
More relevant for Patriots fans is the obvious recent history, when the 14-2 Patriots lost at home to the Jets in the playoffs just a month after crushing the Jets 45-3 at Gillette Stadium. (The Patriots did blow out the Broncos in mid-December last year and then again in the playoffs, but those painful losses tend to leave more of an indelible mark than the victories around here.)
Yet when it comes to this Sunday’s game, history won’t have any impact on the outcome. What will determine who advances to the AFC Championship Game and who goes home for the winter will be the play of those involved. Here are a few reasons to expect a much different game this time around.
1. Lucky Bounces
Saying certain events in sports are “lucky” is almost always a gross misrepresentation of the truth. However, in the case of a fumbled football bouncing one way or another, its path can only be determined by luck — good or bad. In the Patriots’ case against Houston in Week 14, those bounces were almost comical.
The first came with the Patriots inside the 5-yard line, looking to put the first points of the game on the board. Stevan Ridley was held up near the line of scrimmage, and the ball was eventually ripped out of his arms. The ball rolled left, right into the path of Texans defensive back Kareem Jackson. But if he had good hands, he’d be a receiver, so he couldn’t handle the football, affording Aaron Hernandez the opportunity to jump on it and preserve the drive. One play later, Hernandez was in the end zone, and the Patriots led 7-0.
The second fumble was even more fortuitous for the Patriots. With the Patriots leading 28-7 at the start of the fourth quarter, Tom Brady threw a screen pass to Danny Woodhead. The running back broke two tackles before getting caught from behind by J.J. Watt. The talented Watt was able to pop the ball loose as he hit Woodhead, knocking the football a full 11 yards in the air.
The ball landed on the 1-yard line and bounced into the end zone, right in front of Brandon Lloyd, who pounced on it after one bounce for the easiest and weirdest touchdown of his career.
Could the Patriots have won had those bounces gone another way? Sure, of course. But would they have won by 28 points? No way.
One of the Patriots’ many highlights against Houston came early in the third quarter, with the Patriots leading 21-0. Brady took a shotgun snap and stood calmly at his own 30-yard line. Donte Stallworth ran straight up the seam and past Brandon Harris, and Brady lofted a pass right into Stallworth’s arms. The receiver ran right past Harris and into the end zone for a 63-yard touchdown.
A repeat of that play definitely won’t be happening this weekend, as that was the last act of Stallworth as a Patriot this year before being placed on IR. Now of course, the Patriots will have Rob Gronkowski in the lineup, which is a bit of an upgrade over the veteran Stallworth. Still, it will be a different offense, and the presence of Gronkowski requires such attention that the odds of him going unnoticed down the middle of the field are low.
And after getting beaten so badly both on the Stallworth touchdown and the Brandon Lloyd touchdown (as well as an incompletion in the first quarter that should have been another long touchdown to Matthew Slater), expect the Texans’ game plan to involve an added focus on avoiding the deep ball. Of course, Brady will be able to recognize such changes, and the running game is more than capable of carrying the offense. It just becomes much harder to score 42 points when you have to gain six yards at a time.
3. Arian Foster Is Still Good. Andre Johnson, Too.
All-Pro running back Arian Foster was a non-factor last time around, but that’s because the Texans dug themselves such a deep hole early on that running the ball wasn’t really much of an option. It’s easy to forget that the game started with Foster breaking a 12-yard run (called back due to illegal formation) and then a 15-yard scamper, forcing Bill Belichick to call an extremely early timeout.
Foster gained 23 yards on his first five carries, but his team was trailing 14-0 the next time he touched the ball. In a closer game, expect the dynamic back (who ran for 140 yards last week and has 425 total rushing yards and four touchdowns in three career playoff games) to be much more of a factor in a closer game.
(Foster was also wide open and had plenty of room to run on the play when Matt Schaub threw an end zone interception to Devin McCourty.)
And then there’s Andre Johnson, who very quietly caught eight passes for 95 yards against the Patriots. All it takes is one play to turn a postseason game around, and Johnson is no stranger to making them happen.
The wild card of all football games is the officiating, as a couple of calls can completely change the shape of a game. That was the case last time the Patriots and Texans met, as two penalties (one questionable, one legitimate) saved the Patriots from ending drives that eventually ended in touchdowns.
On the Patriots’ opening drive, Brady overthrew Matthew Slater by five yards on what should have been a touchdown. The Patriots would have faced fourth-and-6 at the Houston 34-yard line, which would have either necessitated a punt or a 52-yard field goal attempt. Instead, a defensive holding penalty on Brandon Harris gave New England a free first down, and three plays (and the aforementioned Ridley fumble) later, the Patriots led 7-0.
The questionable call came in the second quarter, with the Patriots leading 14-0. On third-and-10 from the New England 43, Brady overthrew Wes Welker, who was double covered running a go route down the left sideline. The pass landed five yards beyond Welker, who appeared to give up on the play but was bumped by Danieal Manning. The official called pass interference, though the pass was inarguably uncatchable.
That call took the Patriots out of a punting situation and set them up with a first-and-10 from the Houston 31. Yet again, it took just three plays for the Patriots to find Hernandez for another touchdown, this time blowing the game wide open.
When a team loses 42-14, it takes more than two calls to make it such a lopsided score. But those two calls went a long way in turning what could have been a tight contest into a laugher, and if the tables turn this Sunday, it’ll be a much different story.
It was very evident very early that the Texans were very unprepared for the Patriots’ offense. The Texans’ defense was often caught out of position as the players scrambled to figure out their assignments and line up where they needed to be.
The results for Houston were terrible. Bradie James tried in vain to cover Aaron Hernandez on his first touchdown, but he at least had a better chance of covering Hernandez than the ghost whom the Texans used to cover the tight end when he scored his second touchdown.
It was a scramble all night for the Houston defense, and that was as big a factor as any for the blowout. Yet those issues are all correctable, and while Wade Phillips may not be the world’s greatest football coach, he’ll likely have his players better prepared this time around.