FOXBOROUGH — It’s rare for anything coming from the Patriots to be considered bulletin-board material for their opponent, since they are, under coach Bill Belichick, a guarded, conservative, cliché-spewing bunch.
But they might have been on the receiving end of some extra motivation for Sunday’s divisional-round playoff game, courtesy of Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
Phillips, in his second season with Houston after a four-year stint as head coach of the Cowboys, shot from the lip Thursday when describing some of the Patriots, including Wes Welker, who led the AFC with 118 receptions this season.
“Ah, Welker’s not [Cincinnati receiver A.J.] Green,” Phillips told ESPN.com, in response to a question about whether Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who covered Green in Houston’s wild-card win over the Bengals, might get Welker duty. “He’s a good player, but he’s not that big or a real athletic guy. He’s a quick guy that gets open on option routes. [Brandon] Harris actually played him pretty good.”
In the first meeting between the teams Dec. 10, the Texans held Welker to three catches (which matched his season low) for 52 yards. Tom Brady threw four touchdown passes, but none to Welker.
Later in the day, Phillips’s Twitter account (@sonofbum) posted the following message: “Wes Welker is a great athlete and one of the best receivers of all time. #twistthataround”.
Welker had not been made aware of Phillips’s comments when the Patriots locker room was open to the media on Thursday, but he was asked about being motivated for these playoffs after coming so close to winning the Super Bowl last season, losing to the Giants.
“I feel like we’re driven no matter what, I think every team is,” Welker said. “Every individual who wants to end their season the way they want to, there’s a driving force to that.”
Phillips’s defense gave up 296 passing yards and didn’t sack Brady once in the regular-season game. But the coordinator sounded as though he’s going to take his chances with the three-time Super Bowl winner yet again.
“We’re going to try, just like we always do, to play the running game and force them into throwing it,” Phillips said.
On a role
Facing Texans running back Arian Foster will be tough enough for the Patriots. Foster rushed for 1,424 yards this season and scored a league-high 15 touchdowns, one of which came in the loss at Gillette Stadium, where he was held to 46 yards on 15 carries. He has rushed for at least 100 yards in all three of his career playoff games.
Finding someone to duplicate Foster in practice might not be an easy task, either, although Belichick was confident the Patriots’ running backs are adequately preparing the defense.
“I think our backs do a good job of that,” said the coach. “Shane [Vereen], Woody [Danny Woodhead], Stevan [Ridley], Brandon Bolden, all of them, those guys have good vision, they can run.
“They’re different than Foster, but it’s close enough, certainly good enough for our defense to work against. Those guys make good cuts, they see holes well. I think our backs do a good job giving us the look on the scout team in the running game.”
Vereen, who rushed for 251 yards and three TDs on the season, doesn’t mind the role-playing assignment.
“I know what type of style, what type of runner he is,” said Vereen. “As a running back, you pay attention to the other running backs in the league.
“It’s not easy trying to mimic somebody else. But you do the best you can for the team. Open field-wise, we’re two completely different players. So when it gets to the open field, my kind of running style takes over. But as far as run reads and stuff, I try to do him.”
Cornerback Aqib Talib, it seems, was brought in by the Patriots specifically for games like Sunday’s, when he’ll likely be matched up with Andre Johnson. Talib, acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay Nov. 1, holds Johnson in high regard. The 10-year veteran had 112 catches this year for 1,598 yards, and had 95 yards on eight grabs in the first game against Talib and the Patriots.
“He was a difficult matchup,” Talib said. “He’s a big, fast receiver, definitely knows how to get open.”
What will Talib’s plan be the second time?
“It takes a lot of preparation, you have to watch a lot of film,” Talib said. “Him and [ Matt] Schaub seem to be on the same page a lot, so it definitely takes a lot of work to prepare for a guy like that. The quarterback, Arian, and Andre, they make that [offense] go, so you’ve got to find a way to stop it.”
Feeling left out
Linebacker Dane Fletcher was in the locker room Thursday. The third-year player, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason, was placed on season-ending injured reserve, and finds himself on the outside looking in as the Patriots prepare for the postseason.
It can, at times, make Fletcher — who made five starts last season and had 32 tackles — feel a bit left out. But he has been a regular at the stadium, rehabilitating and trying to make sure he’ll be ready for next season.
“I’m kind of glad they put me on injured reserve,” Fletcher said. “That way I didn’t rush back and reinjure myself or something.”
To the limits
Thursday’s practice report for the Patriots was identical to Wednesday’s: 20 players listed, all with limited availability. There were two changes to the Texans report: cornerback Alan Ball (foot) practiced, one day after sitting out, and tight end Garrett Graham, suffering from a concussion, participated fully . . . Defensive end J.J. Watt is the Texans’ most well-known player on defense, likely followed by Joseph, Glover Quin, then maybe Danieal Manning and Connor Barwin. But Brooks Reed? He has caught the eye of Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who compares him to another famous linebacker. “I see a little bit of a Clay Matthews-type player. Very talented, very explosive,” Hoomanawanui said.