New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) points out the defense against the Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium. The Patriots beat the Cowboys 48-27. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Houston Texans at New England Patriots
Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET, at Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Steve Tasker
The Covers.com line: Patriots by 9 1/2
Keys to the game: Houston began its late-season free fall with a blowout loss at the New England Patriots on Dec.10. The Texans entered the Week 14 matchup as the AFC's top dogs at 11-1, but the 42-14 defeat shifted power in the conference. The good news for the Texans is the Patriots' last six playoff losses have come in rematches from the regular season.
Although the Texans hardly were dominant offensively in their wild-card victory vs. the Cincinnati Bengals, RB Arian Foster got going (174 yards from scrimmage) and they were effective on third downs, converting eight of 17 attempts. Those numbers were quite different in the teams' first meeting -- Foster ran for 46 rushing yards and the Texans were 4-for-14 on third downs. The Patriots were one of the few teams to keep Texans DE J.J. Watt, an NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate, without a sack or batted pass, but he forced a fumble and got in several shots against QB Tom Brady. Although the Texans defended the Patriots well for stretches, TE Aaron Hernandez was a thorn in Houston's side and New England's quick-strike offense proved too much to handle.
Matchup to watch: Texans WR Andre Johnson vs. Patriots CB Aqib Talib. Since the Patriots traded for Talib, they've been more aggressive with blitzing and man-to-man defense. He has been a good addition, although a hip injury has slowed him recently. Johnson caught eight passes for 95 yards in the Week 14 matchup, mostly on Talib's watch. Texans QB Matt Schaub didn't push the ball downfield much against the Bengals, and the play-action pass was eliminated in the first game against the Patriots because the Texans fell behind 28-0. Johnson must be a big part of the game from the opening play.
Player spotlight: Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski. Gronk didn't play in the first matchup but did get some action in Week 17 after missing five consecutive games with a broken forearm. He played 24 of the 81 snaps in the regular-season finale but caught a pass for a touchdown.
Fast facts: Last weekend's victory against the Bengals was the first postseason win for Schaub, who missed last season's playoffs with an injury. ... The Patriots are 9-2 at home in the playoffs since 2002.
Who will win and why
Houston Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is an excellent defensive coordinator and should come up with a stronger strategy against the Patriots' Tom Brady this time, but Texans QB Matt Schaub is not going to outplay Brady on this stage.
The Texans have settled for field goals too often lately, which is not a winning formula. Expect a closer game than the first go-round, when New England romped 42-14 in Foxborough, Mass., but the Patriots ultimately will be too strong.
If it's not Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski doing the heavy lifting in the receiving game, it could be Wes Welker or Danny Woodhead. There are just too many options there, and though the Texans defense turned in a performance against the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card round more reminiscent of the solid performances it had most of this season, it won't be enough.
Who has the edge
When the Texans run the ball: They didn't get their running game cranked up last time in New England, and the right side of the offensive line is shaky -- almost all of Arian Foster's damage against the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card round was the other direction. But even a rested New England front seven -- one that still could be without key DE Rob Ninkovich (hip) -- will struggle to contain the Texans so thoroughly again. Edge: Texans
When the Texans pass the ball: QB Matt Schaub has not looked fully confident since Week 14. But he uses his tight ends well, and the Patriots could struggle to contain Owen Daniels, James Casey and Garrett Graham. Still, the Patriots probably won't be roasted by a passing game that has been somewhat muted lately. Edge: Patriots
When the Patriots run the ball: They ran effectively in the first matchup (more than four yards a clip from the running backs and nine first downs). The Texans held the Bengals to 80 rushing yards but missed a few tackles. Edge: Even
When the Patriots pass the ball:J.J. Watt is a monster, and having Connor Barwin and healthy Brooks Reed (he missed the first matchup against the Patriots) rushing off the edge should push QB Tom Brady. But the Patriots will have had an extra week off to work out their protection schemes and get back the timing in their offense that appeared to be slightly missing down the stretch. Edge: Patriots
Special teams: Neither team has a lethal return game and though Texans kicker Shayne Graham made four critical field goals in the wild-card game, the Patriots' Stephen Gostkowski might be the more talented kicker. The punting and coverage units are nearly a wash. Edge: Even
Coaching: Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips(AT) and coach Gary Kubiak have made the divisional round of the playoffs for a second consecutive year, but the Patriots' duo of Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is a powerhouse. Edge: Patriots
Our pick: Patriots 30-21