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Unconventional preview: Patriots-Texans

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  January 11, 2013 12:02 PM

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Welcome to the 17th installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noonish. This week, the second-seeded Patriots host the third-seeded Houston Texans in the AFC Divisional Playoff. The Patriots routed the Texans, 42-14, on Dec. 10, sending them into a semi-tailspin in which they lost three of the final four games and a shot at a bye. An uneventful victory over the Bengals last week set up their shot at vengeance against the Patriots. Let's get to the details.

Arian Foster: Though he ran for just 46 yards on 15 carries in the previous meeting, you have to respect the Texans running back's talent at least as much as you do his avatar-making skills. He's the closest thing in style I've ever seen to Eric Dickerson, his graceful, long open-field strides accounting for a chunk of his 1,421 rushing yards this year. (He has 4,264 rushing yards over the past three seasons.) The Patriots -- perhaps with an assist to the Texans' play-calling -- contained him on Dec. 10, and Gary Kubiak probably abandoned him too soon. It's hard to imagine he'll be so easily contained again.

wilforkfinn11.jpgVince Wilfork: All of the attention J.J. Watt receives is completely justified -- he's relentless and extraordinarily athletic, and he's as an easy a choice for defensive player of the year as I can remember. But it must be noted that he was not the most disruptive defensive lineman in the first meeting between the teams. That designation belongs to Vince Wilfork, who dominated the interior of the Texans offensive line in what might have been his best performance since he did the very same thing to the Ravens in last year's AFC Championship game. He had a sack, a pass defensed, four tackles, and his presence allowed the linebackers behind him to make play after play as Foster was bottled up. Wilfork has had one of his best seasons in what is a borderline Hall of Fame career. The Patriots need another gem from him Sunday.

J.J. Watt: Watt had just four tackles in the last meeting, but he did hit Brady five times, and if the Texans are going to create the turnovers they'll need to beat the Patriots, chances are he'll be in the middle of it. His presence makes it imperative again that Brady can make his reads and get rid of the ball quickly. If the Patriots have faced an opponent this year who deserves more respect than Watt, it's that Buick-pushing quarterback in Denver and no one else.

The Patriots and Texans really don't have a whole lot of mutual history, having played just four times since the latter's inception in 2002. The Texans have beaten them once, 34-27 in 2009 in the game in which the Reliant Stadium turf claimed Wes Welker's knee as a victim. I'm sure as heck not using that as our video clip of the week in this space, and there's not much of a film vault to draw from given the teams' limited history. (That was probably evident the first time they played this season, we went with Houston Oilers highlights.) So for lack of anything better -- the footage from the Patriots' 42-14 win Dec. 10 is still too new, I say -- here's a clip of the NFL Network's America's Game look at the 2004 Super Bowl champion Patriots. I'm not sure why this comes up on a search for "Patriots-Texans,'' but it's tremendous, especially the segment on Steve Belichick, and at this time of the year, it's never a bad idea to get a reminder of what a Super Bowl champion looks like..

Give me a One-Armed Gronk over a Two-Armed Hoomanawanui any day. Of course, a Two-Armed Rob Gronkowski is much preferable, and there is some level of concern as to whether that busted left forearm that cost him five late-season games is fully healed. It was apparent that he was protecting it upon his return in the regular-season finale against the Dolphins, the wing hanging indifferently by his side even as he was running with the football. Hopefully the two weeks of rest have helped him return to full strength. His value to the passing game needs no further explanation -- he had a touchdown against the Dolphins even as he shook the rust off -- and his extraordinary blocking makes the workday easier for Stevan Ridley and the running backs. Here's looking forward to seeing him close to 100 percent come Sunday. Now, if Wade Phillips would just say he's no A.J. Green ...

Quick question: Is that Matt Schaub, or Brad Garrett's slightly less giant brother? Discuss. I suppose if we're in the game of attempting to give the Texans quarterback credit, it could be noted that he has one more career postseason victory than current Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. So he's got that going for him, at least for now. But make no mistake: the pressure is on him this week to finally deliver in a big moment. He's put up big numbers -- in 2009 he threw for 4,770 yards and 29 TDs -- but the defining win of his career came ... well, last week, in that snoozer against the Bengals. A large part of his legacy as a quarterback is on the line this week. Given how underwhelming he's been recently, it's hard to find someone clear of mind who expects him to deliver.

Well, sure, it's possible. There's some extraordinary talent on this team, from Foster to Watt to Andre Johnson, and any one of them is capable of making a significant impact on the outcome of this game. But is it likely? I don't think so, and for more than a couple of reasons. There's no indication that Wade Phillips will have the good sense to change up what he always does and resist blitzing Brady, who stuck the Texans defense for the three touchdowns when they blitzed in the previous meeting. Whether it's a reflection of their coach, their quarterback, or their team culture, the Texans just don't seem to have the collective mental toughness to come into a place where they lost by 28 points a month ago in what they called the biggest game in their history. As Ted Johnson noted in my media column today, the Texans need a lot to go right -- Foster has to run for 150 or so yards so they can control the clock, Schaub needs to convert consistently on third-and-short, and they need to win the turnover battle by at least two. It's too much for them to ask, and while the Texans will probably keep it closer, they're not leaving with a new "playoff win'' pin for their letter jackets. Meet me in Denver. Patriots 38, Texans 27.

Previous game's prediction: Patriots 27, Dolphins 13. Final score: Patriots 28, Dolphins 0. Season record: 12-4.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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