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AFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots


The Houston Texans make their second trip to Foxboro, Mass., in a little more than a month to face the New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Playoffs Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET on CBS. Coming off of their Wild Card win over Cincinnati, Houston is hoping things go much better at Gillette Stadium this time than they did back on Dec. 10 when New England thoroughly dominated the Texans 42-14 on “Monday Night Football” to close out Week 14. Even though the Patriots would have their 20-game home winning streak in December come to an end the following week with a loss to the 49ers, the Texans are well aware that they have their work cut out for them. Tom Brady is 16-6 overall in the playoffs in his career, including a 10-2 mark at home.

When the Houston Texans have the ball:
Houston’s offense was one of the league’s top 10 units during the regular season and it primarily revolves around one player – running back Arian Foster. The NFL’s leading rusher in 2010, Foster led the league during the regular season in carries (351), rushing (15) and total touchdowns (17), and was sixth in rushing yards with 1,424. The Texans are 8-0 overall when Foster rushes for 100 or more yards, including last Saturday’s Wild Card win over the Bengals. In that game, Foster had 140 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries, bringing his career postseason rushing total to 425 yards in three games. That’s the most rushing yards of any player in NFL history in his first three playoff games, and it’s just one more reason why Foster must produce against New England if the Texans have any hope of pulling the upset. In the disappointing regular-season loss to the Patriots in Week 14, Foster had just 46 yards rushing on 15 carries. Foster’s importance does not mean the Texans aren’t capable of passing the ball, it’s just that the running game helps set up play-action and other options downfield for quarterback Matt Schaub. Schaub posted his third 4,000-yard campaign of his career this season and was voted in as a reserve on the AFC’s Pro Bowl roster, but he struggled somewhat to close things out. Over his last five games, including last week’s win against the Bengals, Schaub has thrown just one touchdown pass and four interceptions. One of those picks came in the loss to New England, a game in which he completed only 19-of-32 passes for 232 yards. This also is Schaub’s first career playoff road game and just second overall, as he missed the playoffs last season due to injury. New England’s defense has been susceptible to the pass, so if the Texans are to do much damage through the air they will need a big game from Schaub’s favorite target, fellow Pro Bowl representative Andre Johnson. The big wide receiver posted a career-high 1,598 yards, good for second in the league, while hauling in 112 receptions (fourth). The Texans’ offensive line, which features Pro Bowlers in tackle Duane Brown (starter), guard Wade Smith and center Chris Myers (reserves), has done its job in both run-blocking and pass protection this season, as Schaub was not sacked even one time last week against the Bengals. Like the Patriots, the Texans also practice and preach ball security, as the team has turned it over just two more times than the Patriots (18 to 16), albeit in one more game, including just four fumbles.

New England’s defense may have finished the regular season ranked near the bottom of the league in both total and passing defense, but this unit ended the season on a high note. The Patriots shutout the Dolphins 28-0 to close things out and with the exception of a 41-34 loss to the 49ers in Week 15, the defense allowed 19 or fewer points in five of the past six games. This stretch includes New England’s Week 14 victory against Houston, a game in which they held the Texans to 323 yards and just 14 points. For all their troubles against the pass (271.4 ypg, 29th), the Patriots were pretty strong versus the run, ranking ninth (101.9 ypg) in that category. The run defense and the unit’s ability to create turnovers are two big reasons why the Patriots ended up tied with the Texans in scoring defense at 20.7 points per game (ninth in the NFL). The Patriots forced 41 turnovers during the regular season, a total that ranks them second only to the Bears (44), and includes an NFL-high 21 recovered fumbles. Besides using the turnovers to give the ball back to the Patriots’ high-powered offense, the defense and special teams combined to contribute seven touchdowns (five defensive, two special teams) in the scoring column during the regular season.

When the New England Patriots have the ball:
New England’s offense finished the regular season No. 1 in the NFL in both yards gained (427.9) and points (34.8). This is not surprising considering quarterback Tom Brady finished fourth in passing yards (4,827) and touchdown passes (34) and sixth in passer rating (98.7). Brady had the fourth-most passing attempts (627) of any quarterback, but he threw just eight interceptions. Brady posted all of these numbers while having to deal with injuries to several of his weapons, most notably tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. They are both back healthy and combine with wide receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd to form a dangerous quartet of pass-catchers that Houston’s defense must account for. And they aren’t even all of the weapons that New England has. For example, Gronkowski missed the first game against the Texans because of a forearm injury, but Brady and company still made things look pretty easy. The Patriots jumped out to a 28-0 lead on the strength of four Brady touchdown passes, two of those to Hernandez. New England’s passing success aside, what makes Brady even more dangerous is the production he’s gotten from the running game this season. The Patriots rushed for more yards during the regular season than the Texans, finishing one spot ahead of them at seventh in the league with 136.5 yards per game. Running back Stevan Ridley was one spot behind his Texans’ counterpart Arian Foster in the rushing rankings, as Ridley posted 1,263 yards and did so with 61 fewer carries (290 to 351) than Foster got. Ridley also contributed 12 rushing touchdowns to the Patriots’ league-leading point total. The offensive line surrendered only 27 sacks during the regular season, tied for the second-fewest in the AFC, and this type of pass protection will be key against the Texans once again. The Patriots also don’t beat themselves very often, turning it over just 16 times, the fewest self-inflicted miscues in the AFC.

Houston’s defense struggled somewhat to finish out the regular season, but the unit righted the ship with an impressive performance last week against Cincinnati. The Texans held the Bengals to 198 yards of offense, including just 80 on the ground, and the defense gave up only two field goals (Cincinnati’s only TD came on a Leon Hall INT return) in the 19-13 win. The Texans held Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to just 14-of-30 passing for 127 yards and an interception and also sacked him twice. The defense will need a similar, if not better, performance against Tom Brady if it wants to try and slow down New England’s high-powered offense. The first time these two teams met in Week 15, Brady lit up the Texans for four touchdown passes and 296 yards passing in the easy 42-14 win. Houston finished the regular season with 44 sacks, but only managed one against Brady back in December. The Texans’ pressure and ability to deflect passes will be key in the rematch. Consider this: Defensive end J.J. Watt led the league in sacks (20.5), batted passes (16) and tackles for loss (24.5) in the regular season, and he also picked up one of each in the Texans’ Wild Card win. The only game so far in which he has not recorded at least one of these three disruptive plays? Houston’s Week 14 loss in New England, of course.

Key Factor:
No matter how you look at it, Houston laid an absolute egg back on Dec. 10 when the Texans were thoroughly out-played by New England. That 42-14 loss to the Patriots on “Monday Night Football” started the Texans’ late-season slide that saw them lose three out of their final four games and drop from the top seed in the AFC playoffs to having to play Cincinnati in the Wild Card round. The Texans took care of business at home, beating the Bengals 19-13, and now have a chance to exact some revenge against the Patriots. The problem is Houston is still looking for its first-ever road playoff victory and is faced with the task of accomplishing this in New England. The Patriots have been near unbeatable at home in December and January during Tom Brady’s tenure. Brady will pass Joe Montana for most career postseason wins with his next one, while Matt Schaub is making just his second career playoff start period. I fully expect the Texans to put up much more of a fight in this one compared to the first meeting, but this is a team that is still learning how to win in the postseason, while the Patriots have pretty much written the book over the past decade (their last two Super Bowl appearances notwithstanding).

Prediction:Patriots 30, Texans 24


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