BOSTON (CBS) — At this point of the long playoff week, it’s pretty much been established that Sunday’s Patriots-Texans rematch won’t resemble the teams’ early-December meeting, that there’s a lot on the line at Gillette Stadium, both teams are expecting each other’s best effort, and so on and so forth. We’ve heard the generic comments from both sides, watched the typical inter-city media battles that always seem to take place in the playoffs and we’ve listened to the “experts” weigh in with their picks.
It’s all helped pass the time, but really, we’re all ready for kickoff.
While we still have a little bit of time before the Patriots win the coin toss, defer to the second half and let Stephen Gostkowski kick away on Sunday afternoon, let’s run through four items to watch for.
The anatomy of a blowout looks something like this: Gain 14 yards and punt on opening drive, commit defensive holding and allow a touchdown, throw interception in the end zone, allow an 82-yard touchdown drive in 2:41, lose six yards then punt again.
That was how the first quarter played out for the Houston Texans last time they were in New England, and the results were disastrous. Add on that the Patriots scored another touchdown on their first possession of the second quarter, and the Texans found themselves in a 21-0 hole, rendering their running game useless and killing their chance of competing that night.
This time around, it will be interesting to see how both teams come out of the gate. Houston’s best offensive player is Arian Foster, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Texans try to use him in order to work a long scoring drive that gives them an early lead and keeps Tom Brady and Co. on the sidelines as long as possible.
On the other side, how Josh McDaniels chooses to send out his offense to begin the game will go a long way in setting the tone. It’s worth noting that McDaniels’ 2007 offense, despite its record-setting quarterback and receiver, toned things down significantly in the playoffs. Against Jacksonville, Tom Brady threw 28 passes and handed the ball off 29 times. The next week against San Diego, it was balanced yet again, with 33 passing attempts and 31 rushing attempts.
Including one play wiped off the board due to a defensive penalty, the Patriots opened up last time against Houston with nine pass plays and five runs. Will we see an attempt to score quickly and early again, or will McDaniels take a scaled-back approach like 2007?
Wes Welker doesn’t need any additional fuel, but Wade Phillips this provided the type of comment that always gets under the skin of pro athletes.
“Welker’s not [A.J.] Green. He’s a good player, but he’s not that big or a real athletic guy,” the Texans’ defensive coordinator said in an interview. “He’s a quick guy that gets open on option routes.”
Phillips was correct in saying Welker’s not Green, in that he’s not 6-foot-5 with explosive outside speed. But Welker’s plenty athletic, and while a comment such as Phillips’ might not be the sole inspiration behind a great performance, Welker’s play will now be even more in focus for spectators. If he turns in an eight-catch, 100-yard day, Phillips might be regretting his words.
The Non-Spiking Arm
Rob Gronkowski returned to the football field in Week 17, which was a pleasant sight for the Patriots. What wasn’t so nice was the way which Gronkowski protected his left forearm, which was broken six weeks prior.
It’s unknown just how strong that arm was, and it’s also possible that the Patriots advised Gronkowski to take extra care to avoid unnecessary contact, knowing a two-week break from football was staring them in the face.
Despite the hesitancy to use his left arm, Gronkowski still very much looked like his normal self in his limited playing time, pushing his man back on running plays and making two catches for 42 yards and a touchdown.
However, the Texans are a bit better than the Dolphins, and if Gronkowski is going to be a factor, he’s going to need both of his arms. You saw in the Super Bowl last year what can happen when Gronkowski plays through an injury that limits his effectiveness.
All Eyes On T
You can slice it up any way you’d like, but you know that when the clock hits zeroes, all the praise or blame will be heaped on Tom Brady.
That’s just the nature of playing quarterback in the NFL, and it’s only magnified in the playoffs. And while Brady established his legend by going 10-1 in the postseason to begin his career, he’s just 6-5 since. His results have been a bit of a mixed bag in the past five years, and last year he followed up his six-touchdown game vs. Denver with a no-touchdown, two-interception day against Baltimore.
But Brady, 35, knows he only has so many more chances at another Lombardi Trophy before his career is done. He reportedly ripped into his teammates after a lackluster showing in Jacksonville in Week 16, because he knows a repeat performance will very quickly end the season.
“You certainly never take it for granted. It’s hard to get to this point. You’ve got to work pretty hard,” Brady said this week. “It’s as exciting as there is. This is why we work hard. This is why we put the time in — so we can be at our best.”
The Patriots might be able to survive if Brady isn’t at his best, but their best chance at advancing rests on his shoulders. Somewhat surprisingly, Brady hasn’t had a postseason game without an interception since Super Bowl XLII, and he’s averaged 1.4 picks per playoff game since 2006. He’s averaged just 2.1 touchdowns per game in that same span, taking just a bit of shine off that once-sterling postseason resume.
Of course, one more Super Bowl for Brady and the Patriots will enhance many a legacy around here, but as the old cliche goes, they’ll have to take it one at a time. That journey begins Sunday afternoon at Gillette. You can safely bet that all eyes will be focused squarely on No. 12.