Tom Brady and the New England Patriots host the Houston Texans and J.J. Watt for the second time in two months on Sunday evening in Foxboro Massachusetts. We see the same four teams in the AFC Divisional round as we did last year, the first time that has happened in back to back seasons. The Texans are hoping to change their fate from last season’s divisional round loss, and defy all odds by overcoming a 42-14 loss to these Patriots in week 14. Brady led the Patriots to a 21-0 halftime lead in that game, and if the Texans 7th ranked defense can hold Brady and the NFL’s #1 offense to a slow start, it bodes well for the Texans chances.
Tom Brady vs. Texans Secondary
Brady dissected the Houston defense in week 14, throwing for 296 yards and 4 touchdowns, with banged up receivers, and without the one of the leagues best tight ends, Rob Gronkowski. After a week off, Brady will have all of his weapons healthy, and Houston is going to have a challenge defending the tight end-wide receiver combinations that New England uses to create mismatches every play. Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd against Houston cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson will be key matches. The Texans safeties will not be able to lend help, trying to man up against outstanding Patriots tight ends, Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. This should leave Lloyd and Welker in one-on-one coverage, and they will look to find space all over the field. A particularly important match will be in the red zone, when Gronkowski and his 11 touchdowns pair against Texans safeties Danieal Manning and Glover Quinn. Both Hernandez and Gronkowski create mismatches against the Texans safeties, but particularly Gronkowski, who is one of the leagues most dangerous red zone threats. Seeing what Houston does with its base personnel, trying to defend the Patriots two tight end sets will be one of the key storylines of this game. The Patriots have the ability to run effectively in two tight end sets, in addition to flexing either or both tight ends out to wide receiver spots, creating either a two, three, or four wide look against the Texans base personnel. This creates constant mismatches, and with Gronkowski back, Brady will have even more to work with than last time these two faced.
Steven Ridley vs. Texans Run D
Stevan Ridley changed the look of this Patriots offense this year. The addition of an adaptable and versatile feature back has added yet another threat to the New England offense. Ridley rushed for 1263 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, more than any other Patriots running back since. Ridley is a capable runner, 3rd in touchdowns, and 7th in yardage, and facing a Texans defense that ranks 7th in rush defense, Ridley may seem like he is facing a tough match. As good as J.J. Watt is in pass defense, he is just as good against the run. Unfortunately, fellow defensive end Antonio Smith has not been good against the run, causing teams to simply run away from Watt, and with Smith unable to cover the opposing side capably, it gives the Patriots a viable point of attack for Ridley and the Patriots offensive line to focus on. Barrett Ruud and Bradie James, the inside linebackers in Houston’s 3-4, may have the most important assignments in this game. If the Texans focus on defending the pass, Ruud and James will be the only things stopping Ridley from running roughshod through this playoff game.
Offensive vs. Defensive lines
J.J. Watt has to lead the subject line whenever talking about this defensive line. The talk out of pre-season, that Watt was a potential hall-of-famer, is supported by his amazing season. Watt has changed the paradigm of a 3-4 defensive end. Instead of the outside linebackers providing the pass rush in a 3-4, Watt has shown that the defensive end position can be even more effective as a rusher. In the week 14 match against the Patriots, Watt put Brady on his back and was solid against the run, but failed to come up with a sack, and was late pressuring Brady in critical situations. Watt has said he will have a better game, and the Texans are relying on Watt to knock Brady around, which has been the key to beating the Patriots. Nose tackle Shaun Cody is a huge body that takes the double-team, and the aforementioned Antonio Smith may be a deficient run defender, but has almost as many quarterback pressures and Watt does, showing his pass rush specialty. Watt, Cody, and Smith powered a defense to 5th in the NFL with 44 sacks, and face and offensive line that gave up only 27 sacks this year, 5th in the NFL, and were all very good in the run. With no individual weakness for the defensive line to attack, it forces the Texans to try to scheme pressure, and hope to win individual matches along the line.