The buildup for the AFC Divisional round matchup between the No. 2 seed New England Patriots and visiting Houston Texans sounds a lot like that of late 1980’s Mike Tyson fight.
Of the four playoff games on tap this weekend, the Texans are being given the least chance of pulling off the upset.
There is very good reason for this, starting with the 42-12 shellacking they were subjected to in their Week 14 meeting with the Patriots.
Houston entered the Monday Night meeting as the AFC’s No. 1 seed, having lost just once thus far. This beating triggered a slide that saw them limp to the finish line in the regular season, losing three of their last four games and falling to the 3rd seed, thus forfeiting the much coveted bye week.
In those three losses, Houston was outscored 93-36, and quickly became the popular pick to be the team expected to bow out early in the playoffs. Thanks to Cincinnati’s unexpectedly horrid showing in last week’s first round game in Houston, the Texans were able to advance to meet New England, despite that game having been described by many as basically ‘unwatchable’.
The Texans will have to do things a lot differently on Sunday to have any shot at taking down Tom Brady and the vaunted Patriots.
THREE BOLD PREDICTIONS
Sebastian Vollmer again removes the S in SWATT
J.J. Watt is a beast, and the whole league is aware. The NFL’s sack leader with 20.5 on the season will be highly-charged and indeed laser-focused on redeeming himself after being manhandled by Patriots’ offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer in the earlier meeting. Vollmer held Watt without a sack, but more importantly Watt was unable to pull off his best trick, that being his uncanny ability to tip a pass at the line of scrimmage.
Even Watt’s one outstanding play of the night turned out as a positive for the other team. While in the midst of chasing down Danny Woodhead as Woodhead sprinted towards the goal line, Watt was able to punch the ball out of Woodhead’s grasp, causing it to fly five yards forward. Unfortunately the ball was pounced on by Patriots wideout Brandon Lloyd in the end zone for a Patriots' touchdown. This is indeed classic Bill Belichick, a coach who has mastered the art of not only exploiting an opponent’s main weakness, but also neutralizing their best weapon.
With the All-Pro Watt rendered ineffective, Tom Brady had more than enough time to completely pick apart the Texans' defensive backfield. And the news only gets worse for Houston. In the first meeting, standout tight end Rob Gronkowski was inactive due to broken forearm. Tight end Aaron Hernandez stepped in nicely, however, registering two touchdowns.
The player known as ‘Gronk’ is now healed and ready to go, which means if Watt can’t find a way to put more heat on Brady than he did in Week 14, this game could very well serve as a rerun, and a quick exit once again for the underachieving Texans.
Matt Schaub can’t get out of his own way
The Texans' 31-year old signal caller has had a strange career. After spending three years behind Michael Vick as a member of the Falcons, Schaub was finally traded and given the chance to prove his worth as a top-tier NFL quarterback. Six years into his run in Houston, the results are essentially inconclusive. 2011 actually looked like the year it would all come together, but in Week 10 against Tampa Bay, Schaub suffered a Lisfranc injury to his right foot during an ill-advised quarterback sneak.
This shelved him for the rest of the season, but the Texans still managed to make the playoffs. With most of the roster returning, 2012 had all the markings of Texans’ Super Bowl run. Things were rolling along right on schedule until the debacle in New England, and Schaub’s play since then has been a study in inconsistency.
With the Texans’ running game erratic most of the season, Schaub has been forced to carry more of the weight for the offense. While still managing to throw for over 4,000 yards for the third time in his career, it is his play in critical junctures in big games that has fueled the criticism from his detractors.
In last week’s win over the Bengals, Schaub made confounding throw to the left side on an attempt wide out screen, and the play was so slow in developing, Cincinnati defensive back Leon Hall had plenty time to jump the route, tip the ball, and take it all the way to the house for a pick-six.
In the aforementioned Week 14 match-up, Schaub also faltered dreadfully, trying to thread the needle in forcing a pass to the middle of the end zone between two Patriots defenders. The ball was picked off by Devin McCourty, thus stalling the Texans' drive, as well as any real chance of making the game close.
Texans' running back Arian Foster was able to get on track last week, amassing 140 yards on the ground. However, the Pats held Foster to under 50 yards in Week 14, and if Foster is unable to get on track Sunday, everything will fall on Schaub again. The order will be too tall, and the offseason in Houston will once again find Texans coaches and fans wondering if Schaub is really the quarterback needed to take them to the next level.
It’s a Beantown beat down, again
This prediction may not be overly bold, but it’s inevitable. There are just too many factors playing in favor of New England and conversely, playing directly against Houston. While Brady and his arsenal of offensive weapons gets the lead byline most of the time, it’s actually the Patriots' running game that has been a major catalyst offensively in 2012.
Led by Stevan Ridley, and complemented nicely by Danny Woodhead, the Patriots actually led the NFL with 25 rushing TDs this season. The ACL injury to Texans' linebacker Brian Cushing, suffered in Week 5 against the Jets, was probably the single worst injury the team could afford.
New England can attack you in many ways in 2012, and the Texans’ 2nd and 3rd line of defense will likely be on its heels for much of the afternoon. Brady and Belichick will continue on with the shotgun, no huddle high-RPM offense, and the Texans will have about as many answers on Sunday as they did on December 10th, which is few to none. This particular hill is just too steep to climb for Houston, and Patriots win going away, 35-17.