FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The first time the New England Patriots played the Houston Texans, the buildup to the game was elongated due to the fact that it was the team’s lone appearance on Monday Night Football. Even one extra day of preparation made the gap between Week 13 and Week 14 feel much longer than football fans are used to.
Once again the Patriots will have had eight days to fully prepare for the Texans by the time they kick off in the divisional round Sunday (plus a full bye week before their opponent was determined), and unsurprisingly, the buildup is immense.
If we’ve come to realize one thing from the Patriots in being around them this week, it’s that Week 14 is a distant memory, and not a result that they are resting on. They didn’t do so against the Bills, Jets or Dolphins this season, each of whom they played twice and defeated in the first round on each occasion.
Taking Houston lightly would be “crazy,” in the words of tight end Rob Gronkowski, who will get his first taste of the Texans this season after sitting out five games due to a broken forearm, one of which was the Monday Night Football matchup.
He’ll be back on the field this time around, which adds a different dynamic to the Patriots offense, and is among the many areas to watch.
Here are the five we’ll be keying on:
1. Ninkovich’s workload. The Patriots’ top injury concern is no longer Gronkowski, who appears to be healthy enough to be a factor again. It’s defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who left Week 17 with a hip injury that has limited him in practice this week. Whether he suits up will be the first hurdle to climb over, but should he play, we’ll closely monitor his workload and effectiveness. Ninkovich has been durable and consistent for the Patriots this season, playing over 85 percent of the defensive snaps and leading the team with eight sacks. Having him on the field is key for New England.
2. Stopping Watt. The Patriots brought the rackets back out to practice this week to simulate the length of Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who looks like a strong candidate to earn Defensive Player of the Year honors. The Patriots did well to contain him back in Week 14, but he remains the most disruptive defensive player in football, and the offensive line must be ready for the task again this week. In three career postseason games, Watt has 4.5 sacks.
3. TE Party? As was previously alluded to, the Patriots will have Gronkowski on the field this weekend, another advantage for an offense that put up 42 points the first time these teams played. What’s more, the Texans are down three starting inside linebackers, which would raise the possibility of the Patriots having a sharp edge in the middle of the field with either Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez matched up with a linebacker in coverage. That was the case on Hernandez’s first touchdown in Week 14, and keep an eye out on this duo and how the Texans work to counter the pair.
4. Checking Foster. Make no mistake about it, the Texans offense runs through running back Arian Foster. Foster has been at his best in the playoffs, with an NFL-record 425 rushing yards in his first three postseason games. He touched the football 40 times last Saturday against the Bengals, more than double the number of touches he earned back in Week 14. Foster’s wild card performance caught the attention of Vince Wilfork: “Last week you saw why this guy is one of the top offensive players in the game -- not just a back, but a top offensive player in the game -- the things that he can do with the ball in his hands in the pass game and running it. He’s a great blocker when they ask him to block. I mean he’s a special player and we understand that.”
5. Fast start for the offense? With Foster and the running game as its focus, Houston’s offense is not built to play from behind, at least not against a team as explosive as the Patriots. If the Patriots can start fast and put the Texans in a hole early, it would force Houston out of what it does best on offense, which is grind out first downs through Foster to set up play-action passing. While the Patriots have talked this week about not focusing on what happened in Week 14, if they can come close to replicating the start that they got off to then -- when they jumped out to a 28-0 lead -- they’ll put themselves in a great spot to finish with the same result.