FOXBOROUGH — Exactly one month ago, the Houston Texans brought the AFC’s best record to Gillette Stadium for a much-hyped “Monday Night Football” game with the Patriots, and left a few hours later with a convincing, humbling 42-14 defeat.
Outplayed and outcoached Dec. 10, the Texans responded to the loss by dropping two of their next three games, a late-season swoon that caused them to fall out of the top playoff seed and into wild-card weekend. Saturday’s 19-13 win over Cincinnati means the Texans will head to Foxborough a second time this season, for a divisional-round playoff game against the Patriots Sunday at 4:30 p.m.
Naturally, fans and analysts have been quick to recall the teams’ first meeting, looking for signs that the rematch either will be another lopsided win by the Patriots, something closer, or the ultimate reversal-of-fortune outcome for the Texans.
Talk to the participants this week, though, and a single theme emerges: The teams may have played in December, but that game — and its result — mean nothing now.
“I think all the previous games are pretty meaningless. I think it’s a bunch of garbage,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “The game comes down to teams, the way we match up this weekend, on Sunday. It doesn’t have anything to do with some game that was played this season, last season, or some other time. It doesn’t matter. It’s not this game.”
Added defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, “I don’t think anything from that game is going to play a huge factor. I think it will give them more momentum or give them more of an edge, that they will want to come back up here and face us and try to beat us in Foxborough.”
Playoff rematches are nothing new, especially for the Patriots, who will be making their 19th postseason appearance since the AFL/NFL merger of 1970. In the vast majority of those — 18 of the team’s 19 trips since 1976 — the Patriots faced at least one team in the playoffs that they played in the regular season. It would be much easier to list the only time in which the Patriots did not encounter a playoff rematch. That came in 1998, when they lost to the Jaguars in a wild-card game, 25-10.
With Belichick as coach, the Patriots have made the playoffs in 10 of the past 12 seasons. There have been 14 rematch opponents in those 10 playoff appearances; the Texans will be No. 15.
Belichick’s Patriots are 8-6 in postseason rematches. Included among those eight wins is the 20-17 victory over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, which atoned for a 24-17 loss to the Rams less than three months earlier.
The rematch numbers haven’t been as kind recently, however. The last five times they faced an opponent in the playoffs that they saw in the regular season, the Patriots are 1-4. The lone win? Last season’s 45-10 rout of the Broncos, four weeks after a similar win (41-23) in Denver.
Two of the four losses have come to the Giants in the Super Bowl — last season and five seasons ago. The other two losses were at Gillette Stadium: 33-14 to the Ravens on Jan. 10, 2010, and 28-21 to the Jets on Jan. 16, 2011. The Patriots owned regular-season wins against both the Ravens and the Jets before falling in the playoffs.
The Texans, then, are hoping history repeats itself. Even though they were dominated by the Patriots last month, they’ll study the game film closely, searching for clues.
“You can learn a lot. You look at formations, tendencies, personnel, everything,” defensive lineman J.J. Watt said. “You look at the whole big picture, you look at small things, you look at individual players. You look at just about everything and then you try to find ways to use it.”
That’s the job for Texans coach Gary Kubiak and his staff. When Kubiak pops in the tape from Dec. 10, there’s not much to like.
“I don’t know how much good we can take out of that one. It was obviously not very good from our standpoint and excellent on their behalf,” Kubiak said of a game the Patriots led, 28-0, early in the third quarter. “You’re making a huge mistake if you start saying, ‘If we had done this, if we had done that, we would have been fine.’ We weren’t fine. We got our tails kicked. They were very, very explosive.”
They certainly were, scoring 42 points and piling up 419 yards. But can the Patriots do it to the Texans again? In their four playoff rematch losses over the past five seasons — twice to the Giants, once to the Ravens and Jets — the Patriots averaged 16.5 points and 298 yards per game. In the regular-season wins against those teams, the Patriots averaged 32.5 points and 388 yards.
Adjustments are being made by the opponents the second time around, obviously. The Patriots are expecting more of the same from the Texans, and planning a few tweaks of their own.
“I’m sure there are things that will be different,” said Tom Brady. “There always are. I don’t think any game ever goes as planned.
“I think there is always a part of seeing how they’re playing you, being able to adjust, and who can make the adjustments? Who can get those on the field and execute under pressure? That’s the team that’s going to win.
“Things aren’t going to be the same. They’re going to see things that they’re working on that are going to be different for us this time around. We do the same thing.
“I think you put a game plan in like we always do and see if it works. If it works, great, you win the game. But the next time you play them, you have to figure out another game plan.
“It’s never, ‘Let’s just take a bunch of those plays and just run those again.’ It’s, ‘What worked? What didn’t work?’ Because although the score was good, every play wasn’t perfect. It was far from it.”
Don’t tell that to Watt. In fact, tread lightly when bringing up the December blowout.
“We know how to win football games,” he said. “Obviously, we didn’t play good last time we were up there. I think we can all agree on that. I don’t think we need to keep rehashing it.
“I think we just need to play our style of football. We’re the Houston Texans. We’ll do what we do.”
If the Patriots win Sunday, it won’t be the last time they face a team they’ve already played this year. The AFC Championship game would bring either Denver (31-21 losers at Gillette Oct. 7) or Baltimore (31-30 winners on Sept. 23). Get to the Super Bowl and the Patriots could face San Francisco or Seattle, two teams that have knocked them off this season.
First things first. Sunday means Patriots-Texans II. The sequel has a whole lot more at stake.