Time to break out the rackets again. The Houston Texans are coming back to town.
In the days leading up to the highly anticipated Dec. 10 game between the visiting Texans and New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots used rackets at practice to simulate the disruptive reach of defensive lineman J.J. Watt.
Then they swatted the Texans in a 42-14 blowout few saw coming.
The teams will meet again Jan. 13 in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs, the Texans returning to frigid Foxborough, Mass., just 34 days after taking a "Monday Night Football" pounding that contributed to their late-season downfall.
"We owe them one," Texans running back Arian Foster said Saturday, according to the NFL Network, after the Texans held on to beat the Cincinnati Bengals 19-13 in the wild-card round at Reliant Stadium.
The Texans had the AFC's best record leading into their Dec. 10 loss to the Patriots, but they wound up losing three of their final four games, a stunning collapse that cost them not just home-field advantage in the playoffs but a first-round bye. The Patriots were one of the clubs that were beneficiaries, as they will be well-rested next Sunday.
Here are some of the early storylines setting up the matchup:
History lesson from 2010. The Patriots throttled the Texans on Dec. 10, but that result will have no effect on what unfolds next Sunday. Patriots coach Bill Belichick can simply cite the 2010 season and how the Patriots blew out the Jets at home, 45-3 on Dec. 6, before losing to them 28-21 in the divisional round of the playoffs. There are 23 Patriots players who played in that Jets playoff game who project to play in next Sunday's game against the Texans, so they have firsthand experience with how a regular-season victory means little in the playoffs.
Pressure is off the Texans. Given what unfolded Dec. 10 and how the Texans sputtered into the playoffs, they now are playing with nothing to lose. This is where their playoff road is supposed to end, so perhaps that will bring out the best in them. "We put up a poor showing the last time we were up there," Watt said on the NFL Network. "They're a very good football team and they're tough to play at home. We're excited for the challenge."
Personnel changes for both teams. The Patriots didn't have tight end Rob Gronkowski (broken left forearm) or top sub-rushing defensive end Jermaine Cunningham (suspension) for the Dec. 10 game. Also, Donte' Stallworth (now on injured reserve) was the third receiver over Deion Branch (then injured). Gronkowski's return, and pairing him with fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez for just the fifth game this season, is a major change for the Patriots. Meanwhile, the Texans were without outside linebacker Brooks Reed (groin), tight end Garrett Graham (concussion) and starting right tackle Derek Newton. One other change for the Texans: Starting inside linebacker Darryl Sharpton is now on injured reserve, with Barrett Ruud stepping in for him Saturday.
'Biggest game in franchise history.' In the days leading up to the Dec. 10 game, Texans receiver Andre Johnson called the contest the biggest game in Texans franchise history. That mindset seemed to backfire on the Texans, as defensive lineman Antonio Smith noted how differently the Patriots appeared to be approaching the game. "I sensed it from the coin toss. It was business, straight up, to them," Smith said after the game. "You can see just how serious they were. They've been here before." It will be interesting to hear what the Texans say about the magnitude of this playoff game and how that Dec. 10 experience potentially helps them.
Brady vs. the blitz. In the battle of quarterbacks, the Patriots have the decided edge with Tom Brady, who carved up the Texans' blitz Dec. 10. In helping the Patriots build a 21-0 halftime lead, Brady threw for 121 yards and three touchdowns against five or more pass-rushers. Meanwhile, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub seemed to play tight that night, as well as against the Bengals on Saturday. If judging the game based on quarterback play, it's Patriots all the way.
Temperature difference. It was an unseasonably warm night Dec. 10, with a game-time temperature of 59 degrees. The Texans, who have shown they can win in an "elements" game (e.g., 13-6 win in the rain at Chicago on Nov. 11), can expect a much cooler environment this time around.