HOUSTON — It could have been different last time. If only Kareem Jackson had recovered Stevan Ridley’s fumble in the shadow of the goal. If only Matt Schaub hadn’t thrown that end zone pick. If only someone had picked up Donté Stallworth on that post pattern. If only Tom Brady had fallen into a 10-foot sinkhole at midfield.
“You’re making a huge mistake if you start saying, ‘If we had done this, if we had done that, we would have been fine,’ ” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said about last month’s Foxborough Folly. “We weren’t fine. We got our tails kicked.”
Nobody down here was asking for a recount after the 42-14 prime time thumping that ended the Texans’ six-game winning streak and sent them into a tailspin that cost them the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
“That game’s gone,” observed Kubiak, whose team bled out the Bengals, 19-13, in last Saturday’s wild-card game here. “It seems like it was a couple of years ago.”
Now comes a daunting Route 1 rematch with the Patriots, who are rested and ready after a fortnight of watching film on the visitors.
“It’s the ultimate challenge,” said Kubiak, whose charges have been outscored, 82-21, in their previous two visits. “They’ve been there for a long time. We had a rough trip up there last time but we’ve earned our right to go back. We want to go back and play a heck of a lot better than we did.”
The imperative is the same as it was in December when the Texans were out of the game after they’d barely changed out of their letter jackets: Get Brady off the field quickly and keep him on the sideline. Last time, No. 12 threw touchdown passes on his first three possessions, forcing Houston to take to the air, which is not its preferred route.
“We’re built around a runner,” said Kubiak. “We’re built to hang onto the football, control the football game. That’s something that we’ve done really good this year — time of possession, those types of things.”
Indeed, the Texans keep the ball for nearly 33 minutes a game, tops in the NFL, relying on prudent management by Schaub and reliable rushing by Arian Foster, who ranked second in the AFC with 1,424 yards and has submitted eight 100-yard performances, including a 140-yard outing against Cincinnati.
“The whole stadium knew we had to line up and run the ball and, boy, was he at his best there at the end,” said Kubiak.
Whenever Foster has put up triple figures this season, his teammates have prevailed. So it was telling that he managed only 46 yards on 15 carries against the Patriots, who didn’t have to worry about Foster after they went up, 28-0. With their stud hoss shackled and Schaub harassed into a 68.8 rating, the Texans couldn’t stay on the field, converting only 4 of 14 third-down plays.
That meant that Brady had his helmet on for more than 30 minutes, which is more time than he requires to do significant damage.
“They were very, very explosive,” said Kubiak. “When you look at what they’ve done to some teams in their building this year . . .
“They got us down, 28-7, in the third, they had Denver down, 31-7, late in the third, they had Indy down, golly, I think it was 45-17, you know what I mean?
“They’ve really gotten after some teams. Games can get away from you there if you miss opportunities and make mistakes. We’re going to have to go in there and play a 60-minute football game. We’re going to have to step to the plate and make some plays.”
The Texans did that for the first dozen games while winning all of their road dates, including victories at Denver and Chicago, and they destroyed Baltimore by 30 points. Then they went into a holiday funk, losing, 23-6 to the Vikings at home, then 28-16 at Indianapolis. That meant an extra game and a plane flight to a hostile house this weekend.
“Obviously we had a rough stretch that last month of the regular season,” acknowledged defensive end J.J. Watt. “We have no excuses and we have nothing to say about it. It’s the playoffs now and that’s all that matters. It’s one game and one-and-done if you don’t win. So we’re focused on winning this game.”
Though their unartistic win over the Bengals took the game back to the Blanda Era (a 1-yard TD run by Foster and four field goals from Shayne Graham), the Texans got back to being themselves, at least on defense. It was the fewest points they’d allowed since they held the Titans to 10 at the beginning of December, and by denying Cincinnati on all nine third-down bids, Wade Phillips’s defense did something no playoff team had done since the 1988 season when the Bengals blanked Buffalo.
“Just exceptional,” saluted Kubiak. “And our offense helped them by staying on the field.”
The clocking was 38 minutes and 49 seconds with Houston rolling up 420 yards. Problem was, not enough of them were near the opposing end zone as the Texans cashed in only once in four trips inside the 20, running their tally to 3 for 13 in their last four games. That’s a recipe for failure on Sunday.
“We need to go down and score sevens against that team in that building,” said Schaub. “Threes aren’t going to cut it.”
Not against a New England 11 that led the league in points per game and hasn’t been held to fewer than 21 since the second weekend of the season.
“Missed opportunities, they hurt all the time, but against these guys, they’re a lot worse because of what they do offensively and how good they are,” said Kubiak.
“They’re going to make plays and we understand that, but we’ve got to find a way to make quite a few ourselves.”
The Texans didn’t make nearly enough during their last visit and took a beating that had some people writing them off as the most overhyped commodity to come out of the Lone Star State since Rick Perry.
“We know how to win football games,” Watt said. “Obviously, we didn’t play good last time we were up there. I think we can all agree on that. I don’t think we need to keep rehashing it.
“I think we just need to play our style of football. We’re the Houston Texans. We’ll do what we do.’’