By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Houston Texans have a problem. And it’s not what you think it is.
Yes, they are at a severe disadvantage at quarterback and head coach. They have one game-changer on defense who, if neutralized, would make them extremely vulnerable on that side of the ball. A hypothetical “Tale of the Tape” would probably give the check-mark to the Patriots over the Texans in just about every department except No. 1 receiver and right defensive end.
Still, the Texans could be able to overcome their clear and present dangers on the roster and coaching staff, and pull off the road upset over the Patriots in Saturday’s AFC Divisional Playoff at Gillette Stadium. But there’s one very big, very intangible reason why they will not.
They respect the Patriots too much.
That’s not to say they respect the Patriots too much as a football team; you can never respect Bill Belichick and Tom Brady enough in that regard. They respect them too much as people. They like the Patriots too much, and don’t hate them enough.
Hatred and respect are concepts that are perhaps too abstract and immaterial to play a significant role in the outcomes of NFL games, especially in the playoffs. But go back through Belichick and Brady’s run and look at the few times they’ve been upset at Gillette Stadium in the postseason. What’s the one conviction that underpinned the teams that have been able to march into Foxboro and slay the beasts in blue?
Hatred. Pure, stark, visceral hatred.
Under Belichick, the Patriots have gone 15-3 at Gillette Stadium in the playoffs. The list of teams that have beaten them, as is surely lodged deep in the depths of your mind, consists of the 2009 Baltimore Ravens, the 2010 New York Jets, and the 2012 Ravens. Those teams all harbored an overwhelming sense of hatred for the Patriots. The kind of hatred that sends your mind racing with resentment, that grinds the pit of your stomach into a roiling mass of inimitable disgust.
Rex Ryan has always despised the very idea of Belichick and Brady standing in his way almost every season of his head coaching career. He funneled some of that animosity toward his players on the 2010 Jets – like, say, Bart Scott. For one game, anyway, it worked. The Jets’ win that day in Foxboro was shocking and demoralizing to the point of teaching the Patriots plenty of valuable lessons.
The Ravens have also maintained a level of guttural hatred toward the Patriots for several years, which has manifested itself in veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs. You can feel the searing anger boiling throughout Suggs at the mere mention of Tom Brady and his hair. That hatred is a major reason why the Ravens have consistently been a tough opponent for the Patriots and have knocked them off at Gillette Stadium in the playoffs twice when most other franchises have barely sniffed that opportunity.
There’s simply not enough of that hatred emanating from Houston.
But to be fair, it’s hard to blame the Texans for holding the Patriots in such high regard. Of course, any NFL organization with a clue understands the challenges that come with facing the Patriots, especially at Gillette Stadium in the playoffs. But it’s not a requirement that you bow at the altar of Belichick or lay rose petals at Brady’s feet when you enter the Gillette Stadium walls. It’s that know-it-when-you-see-it attitude of reverence and deference that has, whether directly or subconsciously, caused so many teams to defeat themselves before the game even starts.
The Texans have a roster and, especially, a coaching staff that is rife with former Patriots. There is, of course, Vince Wilfork, but he may still be the leader in the clubhouse for players who have received smooches from Robert Kraft. He alone could be enough to make any possible hatred of the Patriots dissipate in the Texans locker room. The coaching staff is littered with former Patriots, like head coach Bill O’Brien, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, offensive coordinator George Godsey, linebackers coach Mike Vrabel, and special teams coordinator Larry Izzo.
There are more than enough former Patriots on the Texans staff to understand how tough of a game Saturday will be, but way too many for them to foster the kind distaste for New England that’s needed to have a chance at pulling the upset at Gillette. The same reason that O’Brien won’t get enough out of his team on Saturday is the same reason Belichick will be calling off the dogs by the end of the third quarter.
Obviously, there are several other reasons that those Ravens and Jets teams beat the Patriots at Gillette in those infamous playoff games. They all had tough defenses who got enough pressure on Brady to speed him up and throw off the timing of the offense. They all had transcendent players in the secondary (Darrelle Revis for the Jets, Ed Reed for the Ravens) that made coverages supremely difficult for Brady to carve through consistently. And they all had quarterbacks who, at the time, avoided crucial mistakes and did just enough to outplay Brady.
The Texans likely don’t have any of those things like the Ravens and Jets did. But what they really don’t have is that deep, unmistakable hatred that made the Ravens and Jets so tough to overcome in those games. It’s that quality that is truly necessary to even have a chance at beating them in Foxboro – perhaps more than anything that manifests itself on the field. Because you could argue that the Ravens and Jets did not necessarily have the better teams in 2009, 2010, or 2012, but it was that hatred that synergized them and made them winners on those days.
Their hatred bred fearlessness. It’s an attitude that, based on history, is mandatory to have a sniff at upending the Patriots in Foxboro in January. The Texans don’t have it, and as far as the reasons why they won’t win on Saturday, it may be the biggest of them all.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.