- Tedy Bruschi, Columnist, ESPN.com
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Much of Monday's chat with fans about the upcoming divisional-round playoff game between the Patriots and Texans centered around whether New England's thrashing of Houston in December will be an accurate barometer of what to expect Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
Here are my thoughts on that topic as well as some matchups to watch in the game:
Q. Tedy, do you think there is a chance too much will be made of the Patriots' playoff loss to the Jets in 2010, which came after they soundly beat New York a few weeks earlier? The Patriots should beat the Texans if they execute and don't overthink too much. -- GT (Northern Virginia)
A. Well, GT, coach Bill Belichick probably wants the Jets loss to be made a big deal, especially in the media. But I don't see how it relates. That game was two years ago. Rob Gronkowski was a rookie that year. Aaron Hernandez was a rookie that year. Even players like Jerod Mayo, that was only his third year. Two years ago, I'm sure you could ask a lot of players in the locker room and they would agree that was a very immature team.
What I'm trying to say is this: I see these players as being more mentally tough than they were two years ago. They've gone through so much more adversity since that loss. They were 3-3 at one point this year. They lost the Super Bowl last year. I see a lot of these players now as battle-hardened. If they were to come out and lay an egg like they did against the Jets two years ago, I'd be very surprised.
Q. I remember 2010 loss to the Jets was very painful. What does coach Belichick do to prepare his team due to the ease of the win last time we played the Texans? I'm fearful of the overconfidence factor. -- Thomas (Baltimore)
A. Remember Thomas, this is a Super Bowl runner-up team. There are a lot of players with big-game experience. They know what it takes. It's a totally different team than 2010. One thing they have to be ready for is a different mentality from the Texans. Andre Johnson said it was the biggest game in franchise history before the last matchup. Every Texans player can learn from that matchup and how they approached it. Johnson was wrong to overemphasize the importance of the game, and I think Matt Schaub felt the pressure of that game.
There were times in that game when Schaub made poor decisions, like his interception to Devin McCourty early in the game. The Texans were driving, and Schaub wanted to take a shot in the end zone, but Foster was wide open in the middle of the field. That comes with a player wanting to do too much, feeling he has to score now. Maybe he felt he had to keep up with the Patriots. Schaub will learn from that experience.
I'm sure Johnson will tone down the way he approaches this game, and I think we may see a different Texans team.
Q. From a player's perspective, could you tell us what psychological effects the Patriots' beatdown of the Texans a few weeks back with have on both the Patriots and the Texans? Should the Patriots be worried that Houston will be out for blood or should they be confident because they whooped them good last time? -- Matt (Western Massachusetts)
A. I remember being on the other side of this, from the Houston Texans' perspective. It was in 2004 when we traveled to Pittsburgh on Halloween. We had won 21 games in a row up to that point. We went into Pittsburgh and they absolutely slaughtered us, 34-20. For the AFC Championship game, we had to go back. It takes an incredible amount of mental toughness, leadership, character and experience to overcome that type of psychological hurdle you are talking about. We had it back then, and we beat the Steelers 41-27 to go to the Super Bowl. Can the Texans duplicate that type of toughness?
Q. Although the Texans won on Saturday, Houston's defense was not very impressive. It looked more like Cincinnati really struggled on offense. I thought Andy Dalton held onto the ball way too long. As good as Houston's defense is, I just don't see the Pats having the same struggles. Tom Brady should do a better job on reading the coverage and adjusting. What are your thoughts? -- Charlie (Murray, Utah)
A. What you could notice in the Bengals-Texans game was the lack of playoff experience, especially at the quarterback position. To me, it seemed like Schaub felt the pressure. When he was in drop-back situations and had to be a quarterback, he struggled, throwing a pick-six to Leon Hall. Also, with Dalton, there were a couple throws that had me shaking my head -- one to A.J. Green down the field and one in which he didn't give Green a shot to make a play in the end zone. Tom Brady is no Dalton, I'll tell you that. He will not only be accurate with his throws, but he knows when it's time for his receivers to beat the defender covering him.
Q. Just a couple of years ago, the Texans' secondary set all kinds of records in futility. After a lot of improvement, it seems like you can once again throw on them, and they don't play a lot of zone. The Pats ran a lot of vertical routes last time (Brandon Lloyd, Donte' Stallworth) ... do you think they continue to exploit this on Sunday? I think that Rob Gronkowski route down the seam looks mighty promising. -- Prasad (Baltimore)
A. You're right, Prasad, there was a lot of man coverage in the first matchup. I have to think defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will make some adjustments. But with the adjustments he will make, he also has to account for the addition of Gronkowski. You've got to think about that. The Patriots beat the Texans 42-14 without Gronkowski. I wouldn't want to be Phillips this week.
Q. My question is about the health of some key players. Do you have any insight in how Gronk's arm is healing? -- Anonymous
A. I can't give you any specifics on how Gronk's bone is healing after his operation, but it didn't look good a couple weeks ago. At times, it looked like he was favoring the arm and was afraid to use it. After two weeks of healing, maybe that will no longer be an issue, but that's something to be watched during the first couple of series for the Patriots on Sunday.
Q. How do you see the Patriots attacking the Texans' D now that Gronkowski is back? -- Ravi (India)
A. First of all, Ravi, hopefully these last two weeks have helped Gronkowski's forearm get better. He didn't look good a couple weeks ago. If he is healthy and available, he is a whole new set of problems for that Texans' defense, especially if they major in man coverage like they did in the first matchup. If they try to bring in an extra safety to cover the Patriots' multiple-tight end sets, that's when the Patriots run the ball with Ridley.
Q. Tedy, I believe if we secure the ball, we can't lose this one. Do you think turnovers will dictate the outcome of this game? -- Sean (Norfolk, Va.)
A. Yes I do, Sean, especially after re-watching the early parts of the Dec. 10 matchup. The Patriots got rolling and out to an early lead, but if you remember, Stevan Ridley fumbled the ball down on the goal line and the Patriots recovered it. Who knows what would have happened if the Texans got that ball? Keep your eye on Ridley. The Texans will remember that fumble and they will see him as a ball-security target.
Q. How do you think the New England defense will approach the multiple-tight end sets that Houston will use this weekend? The linebackers were exposed in coverage against the Texans in December, this has to be an area that they'll be working on improving. -- Neil
A. This is a possible matchup problem for the Patriots' defense. They want multiple linebackers in the game to deal with the running game, but those linebackers also have to play coverage against the play-action pass. This is a matchup offenses have had the advantage against the Patriots, especially with bigger linebackers like Brandon Spikes. You have to think about the quarterback you're going up against. As a linebacker, you know the potential is there to get beat sometimes because Foster is the primary focus. It's just that I don't know how consistent Schaub can be over four quarters to make those throws.
Q. Last time the Patriots and the Texans matched up, the Texans were without Garrett Graham and Brooks Reed and the Pats were without Gronk. Does the addition of these players help the Texans more or the Patriots? -- Jesse (New Hampshire)
A. Jesse, it depends on how healthy Gronkowski is. I think the addition of Graham and Reed is much more vital to the Texans' success. You saw what the Patriots did to the Texans without Gronk. With Graham at tight end, their multiple-TE sets are more in play and that's who they want to be. Reed is an unsung hero of that defense, and he adds an extra dimension on the edge in terms of playing the run and rushing the passer.
Q. I wanted to touch on something that I noticed in the Texans-Bengals game on Saturday. Defensive back Glover Quin matched up pretty well and basically shut down Cincy's tight end Jermaine Gresham. Do you see him being matched up on Gronk or Hernandez? I know that both of them are much better ball players than Gresham, but he's no slouch either. Also, with the addition of Reed back into the Texans' lineup, do you see Brady seeing more blitzes (even though I know Brady kills the blitz) or more nickel situations? -- Kevin (Kingsport, Tenn.)
A. Kevin, that was a good observation about Quin. He's a player I've noticed throughout the year watching the Texans. He's good in coverage but he can also play the run. He can possibly play that role of being the 'X' position on defense. He can be an extra safety but he can also turn into a linebacker against the run. He did a good job against Gresham, but I was very disappointed in Gresham in that game. Gresham dropped a couple passes he should have caught and he didn't use his body well to get separation from a smaller player in Quin. If it's Quin on Gronkowski, depending on the health of Gronkowski's forearm, I'd take Gronkowski every day.
Q. If the Patriots get to the Super Bowl do you see a team in the NFC that would be favored to beat them? I don't. -- Curtis (Chicago)
A. Curtis, you're getting ahead of yourself a little bit. But here's one for you: Who do you think will be favored if the Patriots go to Denver? I think Denver probably would be favored.
Q. Who do you think is the most frightening player for the Texans not named J.J. Watt? -- Zach (Connecticut)
A. Arian Foster. That's an easy one, Zach.
Q. Tedy, I noticed that the Bengals had problems setting the edge with Arian Foster. This is a Patriots strong point with Rob Ninkovich playing. But if he's slowed down by injury, who do you see filling that role? -- Sam (Shanghai)
A. Sam, if Ninkovich is slowed, look for more of a rotation involving Chandler Jones, Trevor Scott and Justin Francis. The bigger problem for the Texans is in the middle with Vince Wilfork because Wilfork dominated on Dec. 10. When Wilfork was able to stay on his feet and play the blocker, he was a monster. But when the Texans were able to cut him down on the back side, that's when the Patriots had problems. Here is an example of when it worked for the Patriots: With 14:14 remaining in the first quarter, the Texans couldn't cut off Wilfork on the back side (1-yard loss). But before that, they chopped him down on the back side and Foster escaped for a 15-yard gain. That's a key area to watch.
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