The New England Patriots are readying themselves to embark on what has become their annual journey to the Super Bowl. Haven't Patriots fans become spoiled? There was a time when a single playoff game was a thrill of a lifetime for a Patriots fan. Now, it is difficult to not take these playoff trips for granted. Let's just hope after Brady and Belichick retire, we don't forget these days.
The (13-4) Houston Texans visit Gillette Stadium on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. The Patriots destroyed Houston, 42-14, in a Monday night game in mid-December. At the time, the Texans were 11-1 and seemed to be a lock for the top seed in the AFC. The loss to the Patriots sent the Texans into a tailspin which ended with the Texans settling for the third seed, losing their bye week, and their home field advantage.
While the Patriots sat, healing up, at home, the Texans looked shaky in a 19-13 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals last week. The performance of the Texans the last five weeks has raised questions, in particular, about the big game abilities of their quarterback, Matt Schaub, and their head coach, Gary Kubiak.
On November 11, Schaub threw for 527 yards and five touchdowns in a 43-37 victory over Jacksonville. Since then, in five games, Schaub has thrown only one touchdown while being intercepted four times. Last week, with the Texans leading, 6-0, Schaub threw a sideline pass which Bengals' cornerback Leon Hall intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
Star running back Arian Foster has also struggled. In three of the last five regular season games, Foster was held to less than 50 yards rushing. Foster is the key to the Texans' offense. If he is running the ball effectively, Schaub can slide into the role of game manager. If Schaub has to go into "gunslinger mode," he won't be able to keep up with Brady and company.
Looking at the Texans' offense, it comes down to two things-- stop Foster, and cover Andre Johnson. In the first matchup between the Patriots and the Texans, it seemed Houston's entire offensive playbook boiled down to three plays-- run the ball with Foster, throw to Johnson, or swing pass to Foster.
Aqib Talib did a stellar job blanketing Johnson in the first matchup. Talib injured a hip in that game which has limited him the remainder of the season. Talib's health may be the difference in whether or not Houston can make a game of this. Talib makes the Patriots' defense better. Along with his ability to shutdown opposition's top receivers, it frees up Devin McCourty to play safety-- a position which it looks like he was born to play.
Offensively, the Patriots are hitting on all cylinders. They scored 42 points in that December game against Houston, and they were without stud tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski shook off some of the rust in the Patriots regular season finale and should be "all systems go" for the playoffs.
Brady threw for four touchdowns in the previous matchup and I don't see any reason why he shouldn't be able to duplicate that. OK, I can think of one reason. It's his inexplicable duds that he sometimes throws up in recent playoff games.
Last year, Brady had a 0 TD, 2 INT game against the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game in Foxboro.
In 2010, Brady struggled at home in a 28-21 loss to the Jets. It should be noted the Patriots routed the Jets, 45-3, in a late season matchup that same season.
In 2009, Brady threw three interceptions, while only throwing for 154 yards, in a 33-14 loss to Baltimore in Foxboro.
The weather forecast calls for unseasonably warm temperatures for Sunday's game. Temperatures are expected to be in the 50's around game time. This will be a benefit for the Texans who are accustomed to playing in climate-controlled Reliant Stadium. Houston would have zero chance if there was snow on the ground with wind chills below freezing.
As it is, I don't think it'll be as easy a victory for the Patriots as many, not meteorologists, are forecasting. History should have taught the Patriots, their fans, and the media, to not take any opponent lightly. From what I've heard and read this week, I fear fans and media have not learned that lesson. Hopefully, the Patriots don't follow suit.
My biggest concern, as I wrote earlier, is the Patriots knack for coming out flat in some playoff games. Sometimes they, inexplicably, tend to play emotionless in the playoffs.
My prediction: Patriots 38, Houston 23. Patriots run defense will be able to bottle up Foster. Schaub will throw a couple of picks. Houston D will have no answers for Brady, Gronk, Lloyd, Welker, Hernandez, and Ridley. Kubiak won't be able to make the necessary adjustments.
I was 4-0 in my picks last week, which probably means I'll go 0-4 this week Here are my picks for this week's other divisional playoff games:
Baltimore 20, Denver 17. A quick look at the weather forecast and I see temperatures should be in the single digits Saturday night in Denver. That's all I need to know. Peyton Manning will be quickly reminded he is not playing home games in a dome anymore. If the Ravens give the ball to Ray Rice, and don't ask too much of Joe Flacco, they can pull off the upset. Patriots will get to host the AFC Championship Game and, perhaps, host Ray Lewis' farewell party.
San Francisco 28, Green Bay 14. Green Bay's offensive line is, well, offensive. Their receivers drop passes and their defense isn't that good. Pack is only 4-4 on the road this year. Aaron Rodgers can't do it all by himself.
Atlanta 23, Seattle 21. Atlanta has only lost once at home. Can Matt Ryan prove he can win a big game? Seattle has been the Cinderella team in the NFL this year. It wouldn't shock me if their run continued.