The Patriots and Texans play the final game of this Divisional Round in the 2012-2013 NFL Playoffs kicking off at 4:30 from Foxboro, Massachusetts. After the Broncos surprisingly were eliminated by the Ravens in yesterday’s AFC matchup, will the Pats be the next heavily favored team to go down? Here’s 10 reasons why I think New England will host Baltimore in next week’s AFC Championship.
10. Seeding. The last time both the top seeds were eliminated in the Division round was four years ago in the NFC when the Giants and Panthers lost to the Eagles and Cardinals respectively setting up the Steelers win over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. The AFC hasn’t had a matchup without its top two seeds in six years when the Patriots and Colts won at San Diego and Baltimore in the year that ultimately the Colts beat the Bears in Super Bowl XLI. The top two seeds can definitely be knocked out before the Championship, but it doesn’t happen often.
9. Vince Wilfork. Wilfork has become an every-down presence this year for New England. He dominated the Texans interior linemen when they met during the regular season finishing with a sack, four tackles, and a pass defensed. He seemed to live in the Houston backfield continually making plays and drawing blockers which allowed the New England second and third level to shut down the running game.
8. Patriots Run Defense. All year the Pats have played well against the run finishing eighth in the league in rushing yards allowed per game just behind the Bears and ahead of the Seahawks. They gave up more than one touchdown to opposing running backs just once all year-in week 10 against the Bills. They held four of their last five opponents under 100 yards rushing including the Texans in week 14. The Texans offense is based on being able to run the ball, and when that gets shut down Matt Schaub struggles at times. The Patriots have struggled defensively at times this year (less so recently), but their run defense has been solid most of the year.
7. Home-Field Advantage. The Patriots are 41-5 at home since 2007. Although they did lose two games earlier this season at Foxboro, typically Brady and Belichick have their team fired up and a raucous home crowd even at the less-than frozen New England tundra this weekend.
6. Wade Phillips. As if the Patriots needed more motivation, they were handed bulletin board fodder by Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Phillips responded to a question about coverage by saying, “He’s a good player, but he’s not that big or a real athletic guy. He’s a quick guy that gets open on option routes.” While he may not have meant to say Welker stinks, the Patriots have drawn fuel from slights before just ask former Steelers safety Anthony Smith who dissed Brady and the boys in 2007 only to get lit up in a 34-13 rout.
5. Tom Brady. Brady is one of the best quarterbacks of all time. He’s fallen short of a title his last several trips to the playoffs and should be even more motivated to get his team back to the Super Bowl. He won’t have to go through Peyton Manning any more after yesterday’s game, and Aaron Rodgers loss last night leaves him as the only Super Bowl winning quarterback remaining in the playoffs.
4. Patriots Tight Ends. Counting this game the Patriots two elite tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, will have played just three games together. Hernandez rolled his ankle early in week two and returned the week after Gronk went out with a broken arm. Gronkowski was back in limited fashion against Miami in the regular season finale meaning that in the two games that both of them started and finished the aggregate score was 52-13. This offense which led the league in points per game by a healthy margin (almost five points per game) has a real chance of getting better in the playoffs.
3.Texans secondary. The Texans secondary is getting healthier after a rough patch earlier this season. Johnathan Joseph and Brandon Harris were severely limited in the last meeting between these teams. However, the Houston secondary is not deep and have proven susceptible to deep balls and tight ends. The Pats know how to attack deep with Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd who is still waiting for his breakout game. They also utilize their tight ends when healthy to exploit smaller cover corners, linebackers, and safeties in one-on-one coverage.
2. Previous meeting. For what its worth, the Patriots crushed the Texans earlier this season 42-14 in Foxboro. Brady threw for 296 yards and four touchdowns while leading New England to 21-0 lead at halftime back on Monday, December 10. Both teams have changed considerably since that point, but if things start to go New England’s way it’ll be “deja vu all over again,” as Yogi Berra said, and could quickly get out of hand like it did a month ago.
1. Experience. Quarterback Matt Schaub and Head Coach Gary Kubiak have one playoff win together. They beat the Bengals last week in a less-than-compelling rematch of last year’s Wild Card game. On the Pats sideline, Quarterback Tom Brady and Coach Bill Belichick have won 16 playoff games together and Brady can pass his boyhood hero Joe Montana and become the winningest quarterback in the playoffs in NFL history.
As we were reminded yesterday in Denver, things can go opposite the way we expect. Every team has a chance in any game, and yes, that’s why they play them on the field. With that disclaimer though, I think the Patriots are a solid pick to advance to the next round. Vegas has put the Patriots as 9 1/2 point favorites and giving that amount of points in any matchup is always tough. The fact that this is a playoff game makes that amount of points even more formidable. However, with the way the first meeting went, the room for growth in an already potent offense, and the dominance of the Patriots when they’re fully engaged as they should be this weekend, I’m ready to give the points this week. I’ll take New England and give the points.