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Thanks to the Houston Texans’ 28-16 loss at Indianapolis last Sunday, the Patriots secured the AFC’s second seed and a first-round playoff bye with their own 28-0 drubbing of Miami. This will be the third straight year that New England will avoid the Wild Card round. The Patriots will return to action on Jan. 13 with a home game against those same Texans.
Why they could beat the Patriots: Entering the season, the Texans were considered by many to be the main candidates to knock the Patriots off the top perch of the AFC. And they certainly played like it for much of the year, winning their first five games and 11 of their first 12. Quarterback Matt Schaub surpassed 4,000 passing yards for the third time in his career, running back Arian Foster led the league in rushing touchdowns with 15 while rushing for 1,424 yards (6th in the league), and wide receiver Andre Johnson had 1,598 yards, second only to the Lions’ Calvin Johnson. The offensive line was rewarded for Foster’s great season, as three of its members were selected to the Pro Bowl: left tackle Duane Brown, left guard Wade Smith and center Chris Myers.
But it was their defense that grabbed headlines this year. They have a clear Defensive Player of the Year candidate in defensive end J. J. Watt, who had a league-high 20.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles, and another Pro Bowler in cornerback Johnathan Joseph (57 tackles, 2 interceptions). Houston’s D ranked seventh in the league with 323.2 yards allowed per game (fourth best in the AFC) in what has already been the best season in the franchise’s short history.
Why they probably won’t: It is often said that it is not the best team, but the team with the greatest momentum at the end of the regular season, that wins the Super Bowl. If that is true, the Texans can kiss their championship hopes goodbye. Houston limped into the postseason, losing three of its last four games, including a 42-14 Monday Night thumping at New England in Week 14.
That game showed that it will take a truly elite defensive unit to stop Tom Brady and company, as the Patriots have averaged a league-best 427.9 yards per game, and for all of Watt’s spectacular play, the defense as a whole may not be elite yet – in fact, they ranked just 16th in passing defense, while New England’s aerial offense was the AFC’s best.
In the age of the quarterback, Schaub also has yet to prove his elite status, regardless of his (questionable) selection to the Pro Bowl. He ranked just 11th in the NFL in passing yards and tied for 15th in touchdowns with 22, despite having one of the league’s best receivers in Andre Johnson, and his +10 TD/INT differential is well below that of the league’s best QBs.
The Texans have struggled against top teams: they finished the regular season at 12-4, but all four of their losses came against teams that are in the playoffs (Packers, Patriots, Vikings and Colts); they were 3-4 against postseason teams, 2-2 in primetime games, and they’ve lost their last two road games. With all this in mind, Houston’s playoffs could end up looking very similar to last year’s: a home wild-card win over the Bengals followed by a road loss in the Divisional Round.
While another 28-point drubbing is unlikely, the deadly offense featuring a healthier Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, coupled with a defense that has played at a much higher level since the arrival of Aqib Talib, should be more than enough for New England to win. The much-desired Brady vs. Manning showdown in the AFC Championship game should soon become reality.