Every week during the season, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week, it's Sunday's AFC divisional-round playoff game against the visiting Houston Texans (CBS, 4:30 p.m. ET).
Mike: Part of what makes this situation a bit different is that the teams just met Dec. 10 and the Patriots took care of business.
Tedy: This is unique from a mental conditioning standpoint in terms of the players and what they have to go through this week. It's not just the Patriots. It's also the Texans. When you look at it from the Texans' perspective, you just got drubbed by this team 42-14 and that taste is still fresh in your mouth. Now you have to go back and do something no one thinks you can; that's a big challenge. Then you look at the Patriots' challenge. You watch that film and a lot of success you had offensively, defensively and on special teams, and you have to remind yourself, "This isn't just going to happen again. We can't just roll our helmets out there and expect they are going to lie down." So it's a mental challenge on both sidelines.
Mike: Yes, and I think it helps that the Patriots have been through something similar the past two seasons, with the Jets in 2010 and the Broncos in 2011. There is no better teacher than firsthand experience.
Tedy: To have that type of experience, and to go through adversity like losing the Super Bowl last year and starting this season 3-3, that can help. But one thing I'd say is that they are in the tougher position than the Texans. As an athlete, when you're challenged and you have something in front of you like the Texans do, there is a determination to force a different outcome and prove people wrong. It's almost easier to have that type of motivation, that type of underdog mentality. It's almost like the situation we had in 2004 with the Steelers. They beat us up on Halloween, and then we had to go back for the AFC championship. We had the motivation of "this time we're going to do it right." The Steelers had the tougher challenge.
Mike: The Texans haven't been playing too well. They struggled to get by the Bengals in the wild-card round, and they lost three of their final four in the regular season -- and they come to town with nothing to lose at this point. Perhaps that aspect could make them a little more dangerous. In terms of a game plan, what are these situations like as a player when you're seeing the same team you prepared for about a month ago?
Tedy: You remember the tape, the players and the matchups you had because they are so recent. It's almost like there was no time in between. You feel very familiar with the opponent and comfortable with the game plan. You can anticipate and recall everything that happened in that game. It's not as much learning about schemes and players; it all comes down to Sunday. A lot of times when you're playing an opponent you're not familiar with, these days during the week -- Wednesday, Thursday, Friday -- are so crucial. We had practices when we were preparing for an opponent, and you'd feel like one period of practice didn't go well but you can't go back and do it again. Because of time constraints, you have to move on, and you feel behind. That's all gone this week. It's about the slight wrinkles you put in and executing the game plan Sunday.
Mike: Let's point out players who didn't play in that Dec. 10 game who are projected to be in action Sunday. For the Patriots, the big one is tight end Rob Gronkowski. For the Texans, it's linebacker Brooks Reed, tight end Garrett Graham and right tackle Derek Newton. Let's talk about the potential impact of Gronkowski.
Tedy: It was a little discouraging the way Gronkowski played in the season finale, coming back for the first time since breaking his left forearm. In my experience, rarely have I seen a player protect something the way he was protecting his arm in certain blocking situations. He was keeping it away from contact, making sure it was away from harm. That's not a good sign. Does two weeks of healing help that? With Gronkowski having to set the edge, that can make him somewhat of a one-and-a-half-armed blocker, and that's something to watch.
Mike: On the Texans' side, let's lock in on the potential impact of Reed, who was a player I know you liked for the Patriots coming out of the draft a few years ago. He is a fellow University of Arizona alum.
Tedy: Bear down, baby! Coming off the edge in their pressure packages and setting the edge in the running game, Reed has really turned into a good football player. He's still young, but he is someone they've counted on. He really picked up the slack when they lost Mario Williams to injury and then free agency. Reed gives them flexibility to use multiple linebackers or other packages. Defensively, that should help, but I also think getting Newton back is big. You look at this type of "scheme" offensive line -- and I say that because the Texans are not road-graders. I know Duane Brown is a good player at left tackle, but these guys work best when they are playing together and working in unison, almost like synchronized swimming when it comes to blocking for the zone, one-cut stretch running game and the play-action pass. To have a guy who is familiar with that helps out a lot. And Graham gives them the ability to go with multiple-tight end sets. The last time the Patriots were hurt with multiple-tight end sets was against the 49ers, which had Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. They went "YY," and they were athletic and fast enough to go vertical out of a running set. Graham isn't as athletic as those players, but those matchup problems could be something to watch. Now the Texans have the ability to create a multiple-tight end set where it could look like a running play but still has the possibility and skill to hurt the Patriots in the passing game.
Mike: That sort of ties into the Texans' offense. It is a unit at its best when it has a nice balance between the run and the pass, and as Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said, the more running back Arian Foster touches the ball, the better the Texans are. The Patriots did a nice job on Foster on Dec. 10, holding him to 46 yards on 15 carries (it helped that they got out to an early lead), and that will be their primary focus once again.
Tedy: Houston has that zone-stretch scheme and play-action, and everything is based on that offensively. If you can get this offense to play a traditional drop-back passing game, that's when you have them. That's when you say as a defender, "This is when I can finally use my pass-rush moves, get off the ball and be physical with these guys, and I don't have to think and protect my legs." That's how the Texans lost to the Colts in the final week of the regular season. All four sacks were off drop-back action. They struggled in that situation. We saw quarterback Matt Schaub's pick-six interception Saturday against the Bengals; that's a drop-back pass and a throw you can't make. That's not who I think Schaub is or what this offensive line is. I think it comes back to having success with the play-action passing game. If you make the Texans play other elements of football when they get behind, that's when they are vulnerable.
Mike: Schaub has been disappointing in recent weeks. He looks tentative and was almost relieved at the end of Saturday's win. It almost looked like he had the big exhale after completing a pass that helped the Texans run out the clock. It didn't inspire much confidence.
Tedy: That was his first playoff start. He doesn't have a lot of playoff or big-game experience. I also think what we saw Dec. 10 was Schaub feeling the pressure to keep up with Tom Brady. When a player gets like that, you can see it in his eyes. We can see that on the TV, and players on defense quickly pick up on that as well. Schaub has done well for the organization, but that offense runs through Foster. He started off the game against the Patriots and was on fire. When I rewatched that game this week, it reinforced that when the Texans can chop down Wilfork, that's when they have success. But if you let Vince get his hands on the blocker or can't cut him off, that's when you have problems. I thought Wilfork dominated that game. He was all over the place. If I'm the Texans, I trust that zone scheme. You have to get those big guys like Wilfork moving and then "Bam!" you cut them down on the back end. We'll see if they make more of a commitment to that.
Mike: When you reviewed the Dec. 10 game, was there anything you saw from the Patriots defensively that stood out?
Tedy: They were being very aggressive attacking the run game. They were sending Jerod Mayo. They were sending Dont'a Hightower off the edge. They were sending Brandon Spikes. It was almost like they were taking the deciphering out of the zone read, or any type of misdirection runs, and sending them straight ahead, almost giving them gap responsibilities. That was an approach that forced the game into Schaub's hands.
Mike: When you talk about attacking, that's usually the way the Texans' defense is described. Patriots offensive lineman Logan Mankins said he expects plenty of pressure calls from the Texans.
Tedy: This is a Wade Phillips defense, and he likes to put the pressure on the opposing quarterback. The Texans will trust their man schemes in the back and mix in some zone. It's a 3-4 system, and they have those linebackers, and of course, there's J.J. Watt up front batting down all those passes. This is a ball-disruption defense -- not just rushing the passer but also affecting the passing lanes. Watt has sort of taught that whole defense -- Antonio Smith, Shaun Cody & Co. -- how to go up and bat those balls down. They have a knack for it. I know it sounds a bit off based on the lopsided result from Dec. 10, but when you go back and watch the tape, there were some positive things on there for the Texans' defense. It can look at the tape and say, "We did have success against these guys." One example was a second-quarter drive with 9:51 left -- a three-and-out. That was one part of the game where the Texans tackled well, had good man coverage and the pressure got there on Brady. All they have to do is look at that and say, "This is the way we have to play. Win those one-on-one matchups. Yes, they got us, but there were some times in that game where we got them."
Mike: That's something Patriots players mentioned over the past few days, that there were some plays in that game that were far from perfect. One example was Foster's first two runs, for 12 and 15 yards (the 12-yarder was wiped out by an illegal formation penalty). The Texans could also look at it and focus on the turnovers. If they had recovered Patriots running back Stevan Ridley's fumble in the red zone on the first drive, maybe it's a different story. OK, we've talked a lot about players and the execution on the field, but let's not overlook the matchup on the sidelines: Gary Kubiak versus Bill Belichick.
Tedy: With Belichick, I think he needs to be careful of overcoaching this week. The Patriots have gone into big games before and said, "Fellas, this is what we did last time. Just forget about it, and this is what we're going to do this time." The idea is to bring so much of an adjustment level that it confuses the other side. But at this time of year, I don't think it's about confusion. I think that previous game means a lot. I think you watch that game, see what was successful, how you succeeded and how you failed, and translate that to this week. If it worked, keep it in the game plan, and if it didn't, take it out. I don't think this is the time of year that you want to tinker too much. Sure, there will be some slight wrinkles and adjustments. I think you can make those on the sideline. But after scoring 42 points on Houston the last time, I don't know how many changes you really want to make. As for Kubiak and his game plan, it's a team that missed a lot of opportunities the last time -- multiple fourth-down opportunities with receivers dropping passes. I think it comes down to players making plays more than any big changes. I'd also trust that zone-running scheme a bit more. When I look at this offensive line, I see chopping, ankle biting, barrel-rolling. They'll grab you, all that type of stuff, to get you on the ground on the back side. But there wasn't a lot of that Dec. 10, and they need to get back to what they are and get that run and play-action game going.
Mike: I'm interested to see what type of championship fight the Texans have. I didn't see too much of it Dec. 10, and while I respect the talent on their team, I'm curious about how Houston rises up in the moment and handles some potential adversity. I feel like the Patriots have shown that fight, and I want to see if the Texans have it.
Tedy: They get a redo, and that's critical. For some of their players, that was probably the most demoralizing game in their football lives. To have that much hype, that big of a stage, saying what you did during the week about it being the biggest game in franchise history and then laying an egg -- to have the opportunity to redo that, how exciting is that? If you're a competitor, what more can you ask for?
Mike: Let's fire up some predictions. I think the Texans' defense will keep the game close, but I see the major difference at the quarterback position, where Brady trumps Schaub. With a win, Brady would become the NFL's all-time quarterback leader for playoff victories (17). I think Brady leads the way, the defense provides enough resistance against Foster, Andre Johnson & Co., and we'll be talking about an exciting AFC championship game against the Broncos the following week. Patriots 30, Texans 24.
Tedy: There are two teams in the playoffs that still have a lot to prove. One is the Atlanta Falcons, and the other is the Texans. Are they contenders or pretenders? I think the Texans will win some respect in this game and make it more competitive. There were times in the first matchup where they were successful, but in the end, their season will reach its conclusion. I don't see Kubiak having the patience to stick with the running game, and Schaub will have to win the game passing the football. That is where I think he will struggle and the Patriots will advance. Patriots 28, Texans 20.