Stakes raised between Patriots and Texans
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP)-- Vince Wilfork was a champion as a rookie with the New England Patriots. So, he wondered, how hard could it be to win the Super Bowl every year?
After the past seven seasons without another title, he has his answer.
"Winning one early in my career, you kind of get the sense that it happens like this all the time, but it doesn't," the defensive tackle said. "It's very, very hard to win at this level, at any level."
His college teammate at Miami, Andre Johnson, never reached the playoffs in his first eight seasons with the Houston Texans. He finally got there last year. On Sunday, he faces Wilfork and the Patriots in a divisional-round game.
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"It means a lot," the wide receiver said. "It makes you appreciate all the tough times you went through to get to this point."
The Patriots (12-4) have a rich tradition of three titles in four years before the current championship drought. They won nine of their last 10 games, are coming off a bye and are heavily favoured, having routed Houston 42-14 on Dec. 10.
The Texans (13-4) have a poor history with just two post-season wins in 11 years of existence. They lost three of their last four regular-season games, then edged the Cincinnati Bengals 19-13 last Saturday in the wild-card round.
Those differences aside, both teams are hungry to keep the season going -- all the way to a Super Bowl triumph.
New England nearly won it last season, falling to the New York Giants 21-17 on a last-minute touchdown. That was a huge disappointment for special teams captain Matthew Slater, a rookie in 2008 who wasn't part of any of the championships. He didn't even win a playoff game in his first three seasons.
"To be able to come as close as we did last year and have past failures in my previous seasons here, it just drives you and motivates you more," he said. "We don't feel like we've accomplished anything. We don't feel like we've arrived at all because it's all for naught unless you do something in the post-season. We're very driven, very motivated, very focused."
Focused on the future.
The past -- that 28-point romp last month -- has no bearing on the rematch, coaches and players from both teams insist.
"I think it's a bunch of garbage," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "The game will have its own elements and it will write its own story."
|Dec. 10, 2012
||HOU 14 @ DEN 42
|Jan. 3, 2010
||NE 27 @ HOU 34
|Dec. 17, 2006
||HOU 7 @ NE 40
Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is tired of all the talk about that beating his team took.
"Obviously, we didn't play good last time we were up there," he said. "I don't think we need to keep rehashing it. I think we just need to play our style of football."
That style depends on Arian Foster running the ball. Do that well and the Texans can maintain possession and keep Tom Brady and the Patriots' league-best offence on the sideline.
It worked last Saturday against much weaker competition. The Texans outgained the Bengals 420 yards to 198 and held the ball for 38:49 compared to 21:11 for Cincinnati. Foster ran 32 times and caught eight passes, a total of 40 plays. The Bengals had just 48 plays all game.
And Foster's 140 yards rushing made him the only player with at least 100 in each of first three playoff games.
"There's nothing he can't do," Texans offensive co-ordinator Rick Dennison said. "He catches the ball extremely well. He blocks very well. The little things, as far as seeing somebody, it's almost like a chess move. He knows a couple moves ahead when a guy is coming so he doesn't take a solid shot."
The weak link could be quarterback Matt Schaub. He threw for more than 4,000 yards for the third time in four years, but in his last five games has just one touchdown pass and four interceptions. His passer rating against the Patriots of 68.8 was his third lowest of the season.
But now that he's gotten past the first post-season game of his career, he expects a much better performance.
"We go up with a lot of confidence," Schaub said. "If you want to move on, you've got to bring a sense of nastiness and attitude with you to go out and dominate your opponent on every play."
That's impossible, of course, especially against the Patriots' offence.
Brady's next post-season win will be his 17th, breaking a tie with Joe Montana for the most by any quarterback. He'll get a boost from having tight ends Rob Gronkowski, sidelined for the first game against Houston, and Aaron Hernandez on the field together for only the sixth time this season after both dealt with injuries.
"It's all about our execution," Brady said. "They were out there a lot together last year and when we executed well it looked good, and when we didn't it looked bad."
Another performance against Watt like the last one would help. The NFL sacks leader with 20 1-2, plus 16 passes defenced, had none of either in the previous meeting.
"I got quite a few hits on Brady, but, obviously, the ball was gone every time," Watt said. "That's why you get another shot, and this is the playoffs and I'm going to bring everything that I have."
The Patriots plan to do the same. Only two of their players, Brady and Wilfork, remain from the last Super Bowl-winning team in the 2004 season.
"We all play this game for one goal: to be champions," Wilfork said. "You can't take a situation and overlook it. And the situation for us is the Houston Texans. We can't overlook this team. We have to go in and play good football. If we play well, we'll be OK, but if we don't, we'll be in trouble."
And then that one-sided win just a month ago really would mean nothing.
"People have their own opinions about it, but we know what kind of football team we are," Johnson said. "We know if we go out and play well, we're capable of beating anybody."
The Texans win if...
Beating the Cincinnati Bengals on Wild Card Weekend doesn’t fully exonerate the Texans from their recent struggles; they need to show more to prove they’ve recovered from their tailspin. A lot of Houston’s struggles were to do with the declined play of Matt Schaub.
|2012 Team Stats
|Pass Yds Allowed
|Rush Yds Allowed
The 31-year-old needs to step up and play well for the Texans to have a chance. It was a loss to New England that started Houston’s late-season slide, and if Schaub continues his mediocre play, it will be a loss to New England that starts their off-season.
Rob Gronkowski returned in Week 17 and, despite not being 100%, still managed a TD catch. He’ll be healthier this weekend giving Brady another weapon to utilize in the passing game. Houston’s defence needs to be successful limiting Brady; as much as that responsibility lies with the secondary, it’s also on J.J. Watt to create a pass rush. Pressure can go a great deal in disrupting a QB’s timing.
If Houston can limit Brady and turn this game into a battle of rushing attacks, you’d have to give the edge to Arian Foster over Stevan Ridley.
The Patriots win if...
The Patriots held Matt Schaub to just 232 yards passing, zero touchdowns, and an interception in the team’s only previous meeting this year – a Week 14 route by New England. Schaub has yet to really get on track since that game; if that trend continues for another week, the Patriots will be in a strong position to continue their season.
New England’s defence will benefit if the ball – and game – is in Schaub’s hands rather than Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster’s.
The offensive line will have their hands full with J.J. Watt but if they can keep him away from Brady than the Patriots should have no problem movign the ball through the air.
With Gronkowski sidelined to injury in New England’s regular season meeting with the Texans, Aaron Hernandez stepped up with two TD catches. Gronkowski will be back this weekend giving Brady two optimal red zone targets. Should the Patriots take advantage and find success in the red zone, it will make for an extremely efficient day on offence.
And if the Patriots do in fact get the passing game going like they can, Ridley's life becomes that much easier carrying the ball.