It was ugly last time: On Dec. 10, on "Monday Night Football," the Patriots smoked the Texans 42-14. New England was up 28-0 in the third quarter and the Texans basically waved the white flag by early in the fourth quarter. Linebacker Bradie James said after it was over that the Patriots had given the Texans a lesson in championship-caliber football. Houston believed if there was a playoff rematch, it would be at Reliant Stadium. But the Texans lost two out of three after that and allowed the No. 1 seed, home-field advantage and a bye week to slip away.
Top QBs shred the Texans: Tom Brady threw for 296 yards and four touchdowns in that regular-season meeting. Houston has had a poor season when it comes to defending topflight quarterbacks. Before Brady’s big game, Peyton Manning (in a loss) and Aaron Rodgers (in a win) had also posted big numbers against the Texans. What could be different this time? Well, Connor Barwin was better as a pass-rusher against Cincinnati than he has been much of this season, and if he can add to the threat J.J. Watt provides, that would help. And while cornerback Johnathan Joseph struggled in that initial meeting, Houston’s top corner is as healthy now as he has been in a long time.
The Gronk factor: The Texans struggled with Aaron Hernandez in the first matchup, as he caught eight passes for 58 yards and two touchdowns. As good as Hernandez is, Rob Gronkowski tends to present even more of a matchup problem. He missed the first game as he recovered from a broken arm. Brian Cushing might be good against him, but the Texans inside linebacker has been out since October after suffering a torn ACL. Nickelback Brice McCain just missed his fifth game since surgery to repair a broken foot. If the Texans were at full strength, Gronkowski would be a matchup problem -- and he and Hernandez together could be a giant problem. Minus two guys who might be able to do some effective work in that department, the Texans could really struggle to keep Brady from finding Gronkowski and Hernandez.
The third-down story: Heading into the regular-season meeting, the Texans were allowing offenses to convert just 28.2 percent of third downs and Bill Belichick raved about that facet of Bulls on Parade. Brady and the Patriots converted 50 percent in the win, and Houston’s defense finished the season allowing 33.0 percent. But in nine third-down opportunities in the wild-card playoff game Saturday at Reliant Stadium, the Bengals didn’t convert once. The Texans have their confidence back in that department, though they know the New England offense is a whole different deal than Cincinnati’s was.
Will the weather matter? The Texans beat the Bears at Soldier Field on Nov. 11 on a cold, rainy Chicago night that was super windy. Chicago’s offense is not as threatening or high-powered as New England’s, however. If Sunday afternoon is a blustery, Northeastern winter day, it’s less than ideal for the Texans. That’s part of why those failed chances to earn home-field advantage were so big.