Two years ago, this was the scene in Foxboro after a Patriots playoff loss at home
The New England Patriots seem to be in the driver seat entering their first game of the 2013 NFL playoffs. Just over a month ago, the New England Patriots played a regular season game against their opponent, the Houston Texans and won the game 42-14. In that game, the Texans were exposed against the Patriots spread-passing attack, were held to exactly 100 yards rushing, and were down 21 points before anyone could blink. The Patriots are 3rd in DVOA compared to Houston’s 11th, have the better quarterback, have won a game against the Texans this season and have an offense that is fully healthy for the first time in what feels like eons. Everything points to the Patriots and the Patriots big on Sunday afternoon.
So excuse me for being nervous about this football game. I am very nervous.
There is nothing for me to back-up why I am nervous, no magical statistic that points to the number one reason why the Houston Texans are going to stay close in this football game and possibly even win this football game. Emotionally, the Texans last weekend looked to be a team relieved to get past the first round of the playoffs and have begun pumping themselves up for this game with a column from a sports-writer that nobody he “writes” for actually likes. From the outside, the Texans do not look very good or have a very good chance to beat the New England Patriots.
Maybe I keep coming back to the 2010 season and the 2011 post-season. That year, the Patriots demolished the New York Jets in December on Monday night football. I wrote a running diary of that dominating football game and a month later, my friend Sully and myself had a recorded conversation where he suggested that the Patriots should probably win the Super Bowl that year. What happened next was one of the strangest playoff games I ever remembered. The Jets came into New England, the Patriots faked a punt and Mark Sanchez out-played Tom Brady. The Patriots lost at home. I walked down to the basketball court near my house in my Tom Brady jersey and shot hoops for about an hour, if only to avoid my dad, a diehard Jets fan.
I guess that is where I stand about this weekends game. Not that there is suddenly a Houston Texans fan in my house (there isn’t) but the connections are just weird. Like that game two years ago, the Patriots beat their next opponent just over a month ago on Monday night football in a game where the other team was supposed to “take their place” at the top of the AFC. The results of those two games made the New England Patriots over-whelming favorites in their playoff match-up, especially considering both teams (the Jets in 2010 and the Texans this year) were coming off close games against their wild-card opponents. On top of that, they were both in the same time-slot (4:30 PM on Sunday) and in the same stadium (Gillette Stadium).
I believe in sports-gods, I believe in sports superstitions and the parallels are just too weird. The Texans and those Jets are even basically the exact same team. Both teams used the run to set up the pass to take pressure of their “eh” quarterbacks and play man-defense while generating pressure from their 3-4 fronts. Both teams seem to have a weakness against tight-ends or slot-receivers but that doesn’t matter if they get after Tom Brady. Again, statistically, my fears are unfounded. Stranger things in sports have happened. Who would have ever thought an 18-0 Patriots team could have lost the Super Bowl to a wild-card team they had beat just over a month ago?
Maybe similar thoughts are going through the head of Bill Belichick who seems to have warned his team about the dangers of thinking this one is just going to be another rout in Foxboro. Belichick earlier this week delivered an early favorite for Boston quote of the year.
“You don’t win a war by digging a foxhole and sitting in it,” … “You have to go out there and attack. You have to go out there and make the plays you need to make to win.”
This isn’t going to be the same game-plan it was a month ago. Personal have changed as have tendencies and strengths to some degree. Belichick over his coaching career has been one of the greatest football strategist. While the rest of the NFL is playing checkers, he has been check-mating them in chess in three moves. The Patriots all year long have had strengths in exploiting weaknesses of the other team and the Texans have two big ones on defense. First, they can get routinely torched by tight-ends. Secondly, while the Texans defend first options really well, they struggle against teams second or third options due to the nature of man-coverage. For the only the seventh time this season, the Patriots will have their dual threats at tight-end, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, ready to go presenting match-up problems for the Houston Texans. Defensively, the Patriots do the right thing to stop the Houston attack. They have been damn good at stopping the run this season ranking sixth in run defense according to Football Outsiders. This takes away the Texans biggest strength, running-back Arian Foster and using him to set-up the play-action pass. Belichick knows this and it seems he plans to exploit it.
On top of that, Houston was my preseason pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl and even to win the Super Bowl over the San Fransisco 49ers, and I am never right about this stuff. Never.
Maybe it’s just the playoffs and that’s why I am nervous. One mistake and the season is over with the dreams of hoisting another Vince Lombardi trophy dead and gone. I should have more faith in this team, but it’s just the nature of the beast.
Pick: New England Patriots over Houston Texans (31-17)