The Texans were en route to their best year in team history until they lost to the Patriots, 42-14, in Week 14. After the Texans started the year 11-1, they would go on to lose three of their final four games.
On paper, it looks like it should be an even matchup. The Patriots' offense was first in the league at DVOA at 30.8 percent, and the Texans were third in defense at -14.2 percent. The Texans' offense was 16th in the league at 0.1 percent, with the Patriots' defense sitting one notch up at 15th with 1.3 percent.
Unfortunately for Houston, they are heading back to Gillette Stadium to take on one of the better postseason quarterbacks in NFL history — and the Texans still haven't won a road playoff game in team history. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has the third-best postseason record in NFL history at 16-6, and the Patriots are 13-3 at home during the playoffs.
If Brady gets into a groove like he did in Week 14, it will be over for the Texans. The Patriots scored on their first three drives of that game, and although the Texans forced three-and-outs on the next three drives, they were already playing from a 21-0 deficit. It was a moot point, anyway, as the Patriots would pile on three more touchdowns in the second half.
To make matters worse for the Texans defense, the Patriots played the game without star tight end Rob Gronkowski. This time around, the Patriots will have both Aaron Hernandez and Gronkowski, only the sixth game all season they have seen the field together.
How the Texans handle the Patriots' potent offense remains to be seen. The planning behind Week 14 obviously didn't work out well, and as Football Outsiders points out, the Texans' coverage has been a bit spotty in the second half. When Houston sends just four pass rushers in, opposing teams average 6.7 yards per play. When they send in the calvary with six pass rushers, that number drops to 5.1 yards per play.
The main problem the Texans will face is that Brady figures out blitzes better than almost anyone in the league. Brady averaged 7.8 yards per completion when teams sent six angry men charging at him. The Texans tried that six times in Week 14, resulting in a sack and three first-down completions. If Houston wants to win, they need to stop the Patriots on third downs, and that isn't an easy feat. New England was the best team in converting third downs both on the pass and on the run.
The Texans will need running back Arian Foster to get going, and in a big way, to pull out the win. With 140 rushing yards in a victory over the Bengals last week, Foster became the first player in NFL history to rush for over 100 yards in his first three postseason games. It helps the rest of the team when he reaches that plateau as well -- the Texans are 8-0 this season when Foster rushes for over 100 yards. If Foster can't get the Texans in good position on drives, the team will be in trouble. Houston was just 24th in offensive DVOA on third downs, and was even worse when it was third and long, ranking 29th in the NFL.
It isn't just Foster for the Texans on offense. Andre Johnson had eight receptions for 95 yards in the Week 14 loss against the Patriots. The Patriots will look to keep quarterback Matt Schaub off-kilter and the ball out of Johnson's hands with a variety of blitzes. Schaub held his own against a five-man rush this year, averaging 7.7 yards per play. But when a sixth pass rusher entered the mix, that number dropped to 4.9 yards per attempt. Oddly enough, teams didn't send the big blitz against the Texans too often, just 4.3 percent of the time (good for lowest in the league). He'll probably see a few more against the Patriots. Since Week 10, New England blitzed on 32 percent of pass plays and sent six men or more on a blitz 7.9 percent of the time.
The Patriots defense is far from invincible. Despite an improvement as the year went on, they were still one of the worst teams defending tight ends and were middle of the road in defending against all the wide receiving options. Houston tight end Owen Daniels only saw three passes come his way in Week 14 -- look to see him and fellow tight end Garrett Graham get a bit more involved this time around.
Not to pile on the difficulty of the Texans' task, but the disparity in special teams needs a mention because it's so large. The Patriots finished fourth in Football Outsider's special teams ratings, while the Texans came in dead last.
It is going to be an uphill battle for a Patriots team that is finishing exactly like most Patriots teams do of late -- like Super Bowl contendors. While the Texans limped into the playoffs, the Patriots worked out their kinks early in the year. After starting the season 3-3, the Patriots finished the year 9-1.