Commentary

Expecting an encore

Fresh memories from Pats-Texans rout fuel cautious optimism among 'baggers

Updated: January 8, 2013, 5:47 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

On Monday night at the launch for safety Patrick Chung's charitable foundation, I was talking with reserve Patriots defensive end Trevor Scott about the road ahead for the team. It was mentioned that it's nice how players get additional money for participating in the playoffs ($22,000 for this round), and Scott shook his head. That was the last thing on his mind.

"What I'm most excited about," he said, "is to experience the playoff atmosphere."

Scott is in his fifth NFL season, entering the league as a sixth-round draft choice in 2008 out of the University of Buffalo. He spent the first four years of his career with the Raiders, so this is his first taste of the playoffs. It's a whole new level.

I like to hear the excitement from players like this, and wanted to relay the story as a lead-in to this week's Patriots mailbag, which is heavy on the team's rematch with the Texans (Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET).

Q. Hey Mike, I really like the chances we have against the Texans. I would prefer to play against the Texans just because the Ravens seem to have our number over the last couple years and the matchup seems to be a better one with the Texans, proof of our last game with them. Thoughts? -- Peter (Virginia Beach)

A. Peter, I think it's a good matchup for the Patriots. I would have picked them against any of the three possible opponents -- Texans, Ravens or Colts -- because I think they are the better team. But I do think this game will be closer than the Dec. 10 contest, in part because the Texans should play better defense and enter with a better mentality. Still, I don't think the Patriots will overlook them, and if I'm a Texans follower, I just don't know how much confidence I have in quarterback Matt Schaub. I see a considerable difference in the quarterbacks.

Q. Hey Mike, Matt Schaub and Arian Foster played disappointing games last month against the Patriots. Aside from those two, who else do you think needs to have a big bounce-back game in order for things to turn out differently for the Texans. -- Kyle (Baltimore)

A. Kyle, I think Schaub is the big one because he looked tight and afraid to let it rip Saturday against the Bengals, just as he was Dec. 10 when he made a few critical mistakes. And Foster was sort of taken out of the game on Dec. 10 by the Patriots jumping out to an early lead. But if I had to pick another player, I think tight end Owen Daniels is a good place to start on offense for the Texans. There could be some opportunities for him in the middle of the field. On defense, I look to the safeties. We remember Brandon Lloyd scoring on a big play-action pass that fooled safety Glover Quin. They can't let that happen again.

Q. Mike, I honestly don't think the Texans realize how much they're setting themselves up by falling into a trap of speaking honestly. When Jonathan Joseph says something like "they're not world beaters" or Adrian Foster says "We owe them one," am I wrong to think this is exactly what the Pats need to ensure they'll be ready? -- ECF (D.C.)

A. ECF, I don't think any of that stuff really matters. Maybe it sharpens a team's focus in the game planning/preparation process, but in the end it's going to come down to execution on the field during those 60 minutes. I think the Patriots respect the Texans' talent, and they should. There are some solid players on their team. But my question on Houston is if it has it in its DNA to scrap, fight and claw with the Patriots in a high-stakes game. I thought the Texans waved the white flag early on Dec. 10 -- unlike the Patriots the following week when they fell behind the 49ers 31-3 and kept fighting. I expect better from them this time around, but I'm just not sure if they have that championship fight based on what we saw Dec. 10. That's part of what intrigues me about the game -- I think we'll find out what the Texans are all about. I think I know what the Patriots are all about. As a fan of good competition, I'm interested to see how it unfolds.

[+] EnlargeOwen Daniels
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesTE Owen Daniels could emerge as a big weapon Sunday for the Texans and is someone the Patriots must keep an eye on.

Q. Hey Mike, I'm worried about the Patriots this postseason. I know on paper we match up well against the Texans. But with Brady just one win away from having the most postseason wins of any quarterback, and a trip to the Super Bowl at stake, I feel so much pressure is on this team. Just a couple of screw-ups, and we're waiting another entire year. Can you alleviate my concerns by telling me why this year will be different than say, 2010? -- James T. (Gainesville, Fla.)

A. James, anything is possible in the NFL, but I think you have to enter this postseason with a pretty good feeling if you're a Patriots follower. This team has been in every game this season, shown mental toughness and has quarterback Tom Brady leading the charge. If not in their position, what position would be better? There aren't many teams we could isolate, if any, better off right now. Turnovers, as always, will be key. The Patriots have been excellent in that area.

Q. There is concern that the Patriots might have a tough time with the Texans the second time around, much like the way the Jets beat them two years ago in the playoffs after getting blown out by the Pats in the regular season. There is even a post on this blog about the players that are still around from that playoff defeat to the Jets. However, nobody mentions the Broncos games from last year. The Pats met the Tebow-led Broncos in December last year (a game that was so big that CBS would not allow to be flexed to NBC) and won by 20 points. They met the Broncos again in the playoffs and beat them by 35 points. Why no discussion of those games? It seems more relevant to the Pats-Texans matchup this year. -- Chris (Marlborough, Mass.)

A. Chris, I don't view it as concern as much as a good lesson that the regular-season meeting means little. That's an important consideration for players to keep in mind, and I think that's why the number of players still on the roster from the Jets playoff loss (23) is significant. They learned that lesson and can pass it on to the younger players, or those who haven't been in the playoffs or this type of situation before. As for Denver in 2011, you're right, that is another example. My view is that the Texans are more of a threat in 2012 than the Broncos were in 2011, mainly because their defense can potentially control a game. But I still think the Patriots should win.

Q. Hi Mike, what are your thoughts on the newspaper column that Arian Foster turned into his Twitter avatar this week? I happen to agree that the Patriots should win the game, but it's far from a bye. -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)

A. Tim, I agree with you. The Patriots should win and it would be a big disappointment if they don't. They are the better team and they are playing at home. But I give the Texans a little more credit here. They have some talented players, and if Matt Schaub can avoid the critical mistake and make a few plays (a significant "if"), this could be a tight game. There have been enough examples over the years where the underdog team plays better for that 60 minutes and beats the favored team. We almost saw it Dec. 23 when the Patriots nearly lost to the two-win Jaguars. You have to go out there and execute.

Q. J.J Watt played a good game the last time we played Houston but he didn't take over the game like some he has played in this year. Is the key to keeping him under control again in part having Brady do what he does best, which is getting rid of the ball very quickly? -- David (North Attleborough)

A. David, I'm sure there will be times when the ball is out quickly, but as we saw in the Dec. 10 meeting, the ability to set up play-action opportunities can buy more time for Brady in the pocket (e.g. Brandon Lloyd touchdown catch). So I'd start with getting the running game going, because that opens up more options in the passing game, as well, keeping those defenders a little more honest from simply pinning their ears back and rushing up the field. When J.J. Watt, Antonio Smith, Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed & Co. can do that, they are dangerous.

Q. Hey Mike. Houston was able to isolate and target the Bengals' Rey Maualuga in the passing game, and take advantage. I see Brandon Spikes as the next target, especially with the Texans' TE's all healthy. How big of a concern is this and how can the Patriots counter this scheme? Thanks. -- Glenn (Boston)

A. Glenn, I thought the same thing, and I do think it's a fair concern.Tedy Bruschi touched on it in his weekly chat, as well. The one counter I'd say is that Spikes has shown he can cover, such as his interception in the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens last year. It's just that he's been a little off in that area late in the season and I think his health was part of the reason.

Q. Eagerly looking forward to the divisional games but looking at Pats' path to the Super Bowl and assuming the Patriots beat Houston, which would be an easier match-up for the Patriots in the AFC Championship game -- Patriots at Broncos or Ravens at Patriots? I somehow feel that Pats at Broncos would be an easier game for the Pats. Your thoughts? -- Raghu M. (Wilmington)

A. Raghu, I'd take the home game in this scenario. I think Peyton Manning and the Broncos on the road would be a tougher matchup than Joe Flacco, Ray Lewis and the Ravens at Gillette Stadium. I think the Patriots can beat the Broncos, but if I can avoid Manning, that would be No. 1 on my list.

Q. Hello Mike, I like this game for New England if Brady is sharp. Houston's defense can make life difficult, so a great start is vital. Two questions: 1. Would New England elect to receive if they win the toss to try and put 7 on first? 2. Might we see Hernandez in the backfield for a "new wrinkle" in this rematch now that Gronk is back? -- Jim (New Hampshire)

A. Jim, I don't think we'd see a change in Belichick's approach with the opening toss. I think if they win the toss, they would defer because Belichick likes to set up that opportunity for the "double score" at the end of the half/start of the half. The only way I see that changing is if wind was a huge factor. On Hernandez, I like the thought. We haven't seen much of that this year, which qualifies it for "wrinkle" status.

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesIs Texans QB Matt Schaub up for this playoff challenge vs. Tom Brady? Most are betting no.

Q. I thought it was interesting and somewhat unusual for Josh McDaniels to so publicly turn down any coaching interviews. So, here's my sort-of-conspiracy question for the day: Do you think this has anything to do with the future of Bill Belichick? Specifically, I wonder if there's been a behind-the-scenes conversation between Belichick and McDaniels about succeeding him in the near future (say, if the Pats win it all). Seems like that's the sort of coaching continuity that the organization would be comfortable with when Belichick finally hangs up the hoodie. What do you think? -- Eric S. (Carlisle, Mass.)

A. Eric, I don't subscribe to that line of thinking. I thought Sports Illustrated's Peter King was spot-on when he wrote on this topic in his "Monday Morning Quarterback" piece. Here is the section on McDaniels: "McDaniels and his wife just had their fourth child in December, and he's happy with the Patriots, and he absolutely doesn't want to move his family for the third straight year (Denver to St. Louis to the Boston 'burbs), even if it meant he'd have a chance to coach his hometown Browns. He loves his lot in life now, coaching Tom Brady and coaching under Bill Belichick; why leave? I also think McDaniels understands the most important thing about the situation he's in: After being run out of Denver, he may get only one more chance at being a head coach, and so he wants to be sure the next time (if there is a next time) he steps into a place he knows he has a good chance to win."

Q. Hi Mike, with the Eagles looking for a new head coach, I'm wondering why there's been no talk of looking for prospects from amongst the Patriots' staff. That organization has a history of being consistently excellent, without any prolonged rebuilding process. Granted, coaches and front office personnel moving from the Pats to other teams have not always been successful in their new positions, and I know they cannot be interviewed until after the (usually long) playoff run, but do you see any current Patriots coaches as candidates with another team, specifically the Eagles? -- Amy H. (Glen Mills, Penn.)

A. Amy, I think the Eagles would have been interested in Josh McDaniels, but that doesn't look like something he's interested in pursuing right now. Otherwise, I don't think there is anyone on staff that would be ready for that step right now. I'd like to see linebackers coach Pepper Johnson realize his dream of elevating to a coordinator position, but that's entirely different than a head coach.

Q. With the firing of Romeo Crennel and Scott Pioli in mind, why hasn't the magic transcended to other teams when Pats coaches or executives have moved on? -- johnski (Monte Vista, Colo.)

A. It hasn't been all bad, John, as former director of college scouting Thomas Dimitroff has engineered a terrific turnaround in Atlanta. As for the situations that haven't worked out, I think the reasons vary. One of them is that Bill Belichick is unique in his ability to handle such a position and all the facets of it. I think quarterback Tom Brady and his excellence is part of it, as well; he helps cover up some other weaknesses. Finally, look at the general success rate of head coaches (not just former Patriots coaches). It's a tough job. Not many endure.

Q. I heard Matt Patricia's name come up as a potential head coach at Syracuse. Have you heard anything about this? And if he leaves, does that mean RAC returns as DC in 2013 (or possibly sooner as an "advisor" for the postseason)? -- Justin (San Francisco)

A. Justin, Patricia obviously has Syracuse roots, so I could see where some lines might have been connected to his name, but, as we know, Syracuse stayed in-house with its hire. In general, I think this is where Patricia wants to be.

Q. Mike, have you ever seen a head coach ignore what's happening on the field more than Bill Belichick? I have noticed, at least once or twice a game, the Patriots offense will be on the field and in mid-drive, and Belichick is over talking to his defensive players. Don't get me wrong, I don't knock him for it. He obviously has trust in Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels, but I was just curious if you know of any other coaches who do this? I have seen NFL coaches talk to players and such, but they usually call them over to them so the coach has an eye on the field. Belichick is usually squatting down with his back to the game. -- Tony (Hollywood, Calif.)

A. This is a good observation, Tony, and it reflects how involved Belichick is with the defense. I can't think of too many other coaches, if any, who break away like he does during the course of the game.

Q. Hi Mike, my question is what did Bill Belichick mean when he said "teams that are script-type teams"? It seems like he was suggesting that the Texans will have the first series (or maybe more) all written out for the team, regardless of what kind of defense/offense the Patriots show them. Is that the correct interpretation? And if so, doesn't this sound like exactly the opposite of what Brady and the Patriots do? -- Alex (Wakefield, Mass.)

A. Alex, that was my interpretation of Belichick's remarks. Gary Kubiak comes from the Mike Shanahan coaching system where they would often script out the first set of plays. I think Belichick was saying that whatever happens as part of that script might not carry into the rest of the game, so they can't assume they have all the answers they need at that point. As for what the Patriots do, I'd say it truly varies depending on the game. Sometimes it seems scripted to me, and that's when they might keep the same personnel on the field and decide to play fast.

Q. Mike, I have noticed a number of times over the years that one playoff team seems to be hurt with the scheduling. This year it's the Ravens, who have a six-day turnaround as opposed to the Texans, who get eight days. Why aren't the Pats and Texans playing Saturday, with the Broncos and Ravens on Sunday? That makes much fairer sense to me. -- Ken (Long Island)

A. Ken, there are a few factors in play here. The first is that the NFL sets up the schedule at the start of the playoffs and doesn't know which teams will win. The second, in my view, is that television is a factor. They like to position certain matchups in the prime spots. And finally, if any team deserves any type of advantage, it's the No. 1 seed, and I think the Broncos get that with the Saturday game, and then if they win, an extra day to prepare/rest for the AFC Championship. I know that's different from the NFC side this year, but it seems fair to me.

Q. Hi Mike, after seeing some of the snap splits in terms of playing time at RB (i.e. Stevan Ridley about 45 percent and Danny Woodhead about 35 percent), do you think there are any other running backs who have been as effective in terms of production per playing time as Ridley has been in his limited playing time? I mean, he rushed for almost 1,300 yards and hasn't even played half the snaps. Some of the up-tempo schemes the Patriots run certainly contribute to increased production, but it is still impressive for a team that does not feature a true bellcow RB. -- Ross (Chicago, Il.)

A. Ross, I think the key here is total plays. The Patriots ran more plays than any other team in the NFL, so even though Ridley is at a 45 percent clip, his total number of plays is still quite high when compared with, say, a 45 percent running back with a team like the Jets. I love the topic, and appreciate you bringing it up. In the offseason, I hope to take a closer look at if there truly are bell cows these days, because my sense is that there aren't.

Q. Hi Mike, I was curious to know what Chris Simms' role on the Patriots is. I have read that he is a coaching assistant yet I have not seen him on the field nor is he on the Patriots list of coaches. -- Akhil (Massachusetts)

A. Akhil, Simms is part of an entry-level group of coaches that could be doing anything from film breakdown to personnel stuff. It's how Josh McDaniels got his start under Bill Belichick, and look at him now. To me, if you're a young coach and want to get into the business, there aren't many better places than right here under Belichick. I think he does a great job developing coaches. Simms is now in the pipeline.

Q. Mike, what are the chances Ed Reed lands a one- to two-year contract in New England, a la Rodney Harrison a few years back? I'm wondering how much of the secondary's problems have been related to youth with no veteran presence back there for them to learn from. I think Patrick Chung comes back, Tavon Wilson develops, maybe they draft another safety, and having a guy like Ed Reed back there showing them how to play could make all the difference. How much do you think lack of a veteran presence (from the turnover of the defense in 08/09) has been responsible for our inability to develop the defensive backfield? -- grandjordanian (San Diego, Calif.)

A. Grand, if Reed is available, I think you certainly look at that possibility. We know how much Belichick respects him, and the feeling is mutual. As for the lack of a veteran presence at safety, I think it's more talent-based. If they put rookie Harrison Smith back there this year, I think we would have seen better play. Smith was excellent for the Vikings and I believe he was a player of interest in the first round (but other needs/availability of players trumped that). So whether it's a veteran or a rookie, I just think it's more about talent.

Q. Do you believe that Wes Welker's increased role late in the season will help to get him that contract extension? -- Kimberly J. (Little Rock, Ark.)

A. Kimberly, I didn't notice a huge role change for Welker late in the season. I think his performance has been pretty consistent in his six seasons. In the end, I still think the Patriots will assign the franchise tag on Welker ($11.4 million) if they can't reach some type of compromise deal.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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