These Patriots are not an easy bunch to figure out. One week they’ll try to ram the ball down an opponent’s throat with the run, the next they’ll spread it out and attack through the air, and they’ll follow that with an ultra hurry-up approach to rattle a defense and open up holes. What’ll it be in Sunday’s divisional playoff game against the Texans in a rematch of a Dec. 10 blowout victory? Our three Patriots reporters try to get into the mind of Bill Belichick and guess the game plan.
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Mike Reiss: Keep it simple -- take what Texans give them
If the idea is to get the best five skill-position players on the field, the Patriots have some easy answers now that everyone is healthy. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will be at tight end, Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker take the receiver spots, and Stevan Ridley leads the way at running back (occasionally spelled by Danny Woodhead).
There should be little need for liberal substitutions against the Texans. Play with those five, play fast, and shape the attack based on how the Texans match up.
If the Texans go small with an extra defensive back, pound the running game with Ridley. If the Texans go with the base defense, spread them out and get the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands quickly. That’s the beauty of this offense when everyone is healthy -- the unique skills of tight ends Gronkowski and Hernandez create such flexibility.
The key, also, is the offensive line holding up against a powerful Texans front line. As we saw in Super Bowl XLII when the Patriots lost to the Giants, an entire offense can be paralyzed if the offensive line can’t protect.
So overall, this isn’t rocket science. The Patriots haven’t had their top offensive skill-position players intact for 12 of their 16 regular-season, but they will on Sunday. Leave them out on the field and let it rip.
Mike Rodak: Expect Pats to air it out early and often
This is the Patriots' 17th game since the season started, and their second against the Texans in just over a month. They won't be rolling out a whole new scheme to throw at Houston, but they also won't line up and try to be successful at everything they tried against the Texans in December.
But one of the things that did work was the play action pass, which led to a 37-yard Brandon Lloyd touchdown grab in Week 14. The deep pass in general also was successful, with Brady connecting with Donte' Stallworth on a 63-yard pass out of the shotgun later in the game.
The weakest part of the Texans defense remains in the middle of the field, where injuries have hit their inside linebackers and their safeties have struggled at times as well. Those are the four players most affected by the play action, and the reason why it could be effective again on Sunday.
Overall, the key for the Patriots will be to open up their aerial attack, so long as they are able to contain the Texans' pass rush, which will receive a boost from Brooks Reed, who did not play in December. As coach Belichick said on Wednesday, "You don't win a war by digging in a foxhole and sitting in it." Expect the Patriots to stand up and take some deep shots early in Sunday's game.
Field Yates: Pats’ tight ends will have big games
The Patriots have dealt with their fair share of injuries, notably extended time missed by tight ends Gronkowski and Hernandez. The offense hasn’t exactly faltered in their absence, but the Patriots remain at their best with both on the field.
We saw them together during Week 17, although Gronkowski played a more limited role in his first game back after suffering a broken forearm.
With two more weeks to heel and recover, Gronkowski figures to be in a better place to see extensive action this Sunday, putting the Patriots offense at an advantage against a Houston defense that is beaten up at inside linebacker.
The Texans turned to veteran Barrett Ruud to start their wild card game against Cincinnati alongside Bradie James, a player who the Patriots were able to isolate in coverage of Hernandez back in Week 14.
Many will recall Hernandez’s first of two touchdowns from the game, during which he handily beat James near the goal line on an out-breaking route. That play is a microcosm of a matchup the Patriots could look to exploit this weekend, as the Texans simply do not have the cavalry to matchup with Gronkowski and Heranandez in man-to-man defense.
The Texans are a heavy blitz team, which requires the secondary to hold up in man coverage behind it. Belichick noted his team’s ability to beat man coverage during the first matchup, and with an even stronger receiving core in place this time around, the Patriots must do the same.
Building the offense around Gronkowski and Hernandez and challenging the Texans linebackers and secondary in coverage could lead to another big day.