Four weeks ago the Houston Texans visited Gillette Stadium in supposedly their biggest game in franchise history – and they limped away victims of a 42-14 loss to the New England Patriots.
That started a downward spiral for Houston that cost the team a bye and home field advantage throughout the playoff. So now Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Arian Foster and company have to go back to the same place and try and knock off a healthier New England squad that has been resting for a week and breaking down film. Quite the tall order.
A little further south, the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons are tired of hearing how they’re excellent in the regular season but fold like a cheap tent in the playoffs. In comes the Seattle Seahawks, the hottest team in the National Football League not named the Denver Broncos, to try and extend Atlanta’s postseason losing streak to five behind rookie quarterback sensation Russell Wilson, bruising running back Marshawn Lynch and a stout defense.
Both the Georgia Dome and Gillette Stadium can get very loud, but nothing seems to be scaring the Seahawks these days and that makes them the best bet to pull off the road upset. In order for that to happen, and in order for the Patriots to move a step closer to their second consecutive Super Bowl appearance, some key things have to happen.
Five Things To Watch:
1. How will Houston’s defense cope with the two-tight end machine of New England’s Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez – Patriots quarterback Tom Brady shredded the Texans for 296 yards and four touchdown passes back on December 10th without Gronkowski in the lineup. Hernandez caught two of those scoring strikes and Gronkowski looked pretty close to his Pro Bowl form in the regular-season finale at home against the Miami Dolphins with two catches for 42 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown reception. Granted, Houston owns the league’s No. 7 defense but is facing the top-ranked offense, with an extra week to prepare for Brady. Gronkowski is primed to exploit the middle of the field while at the same time opening things up for Hernandez, Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and the others. This is where the game could be decided.
2. What will Seattle’s big, athletic and talented secondary do to take Falcons wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White out of the game – There aren’t too many secondaries that can match up with Atlanta’s two speedy and reliable receivers in Jones and White, but the Seahawks are one of them. Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are capable of effectively covering these two one-on-one, which means Pete Carroll can commit more pass rushers and call more blitzes to throw off the timing of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. Sherman and Browner are two of the biggest cornerbacks in the NFL and both have the speed to lock down their sides on deep routes while also being able to use their long arms to disrupt passes. If they can frustrate Jones and White and force Ryan to rely on tight end Tony Gonzalez due to an ineffective ground game (29th in the league in rushing) that could be just the right recipe for another early exit by Atlanta.
3. Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer versus Texans defensive end J.J. Watt – Without a doubt the most important one-on-one match-up of the day will take place on the line of scrimmage between these two behemoths. Vollmer stands at 6-foot-8 and weighs 320 pounds, owning a three-inch height advantage and a 25-pound weight advantage over Watt (6-5, 295). He kept Watt away from Brady in the first meeting as Houston managed only one sack, but Watt led the league with 20.5 on the season and quadrupled his number of passes defensed from 2011 going from four to 16. If he can get his hands up and bat down enough of Brady’s passes to alter his rhythm and arm angle while also using his speed to get around Vollmer that will be the best chance for the Texans to flip the end result on the scoreboard.
4. Can Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson follow up his impressive playoff debut with another clutch performance – The unflappable Wilson stayed the course last week on the road at the Washington Redskins on a sloppy field despite falling behind by two touchdowns and led his team to 24 unanswered points and the win. He has the security blanket of running back Marshawn Lynch behind him to take some of the pressure off and a physical and opportunistic defense to give him decent field position, but he can’t afford to get too far behind inside the Georgia Dome. If Wilson can show the poise and confidence that got him this far and make some critical plays with his legs like he has done all season, his fairy tale ride just might continue.
5. Will New England’s defense prove that its shutout of Miami in Week 17 was more representative of the unit it has become than the one that finished the season ranked 25th overall – As potent as the Patriots offense is, the Texans aren’t too far behind thanks to the production they gave gotten out of Foster in the running game and Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels in the passing game. Daniels caught six touchdown passes from Schaub this season in 14 starts while Johnson turned in another Pro Bowl season with 112 catches for 1,598 yards and four touchdowns. Foster rushed for 1,424 yards and 15 touchdowns on 351 carries, losing just two fumbles all season. New England led the NFL in takeaways and Schaub did throw 12 interceptions this season, so if the ball hits the ground or one of Schaub’s passes goes astray, that could turn the tide in favor of the home team and push the Patriots to the AFC Championship game.
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