Tom Brady’s ability to quickly recognize defenses, find mismatches, and consistently deliver razor-sharp passes is what separates him from all the others. Given the time, Brady will shred and demoralize defenses with surgical precision. He is extraordinarily confident, competitive, and clutch. The 13-year veteran may lack athleticism but he is a master at getting all of his teammates involved, and his ability to run the hurry-up offense is second to none. Few players are more respected in their huddle — as well as their opponents’ huddle. Houston’s Matt Schaub is solid and steady and is coming off his first playoff victory. Schaub thrives in the short-to-intermediate game. He is a streaky player and works best as a complementary piece; asking him to carry the offense for long stretches is a mistake.
Stevan Ridley has become one of the more consistent and reliable backs in the NFL, averaging 18 carries and nearly 80 yards per game. Ridley runs with great vision and energy. He hits holes hard and explodes onto the second level, leaning into linebackers and defensive backs. He is very enthusiastic and indefatigable. Shane Vereen shows flashes (but not enough) of quickness and power. Danny Woodhead is a football player, plain and simple. Woodhead has great instincts, quickness, and toughness. He changes directions and speeds fluidly and is a great blocker. Houston’s Arian Foster is a muscular back with good vision and patience. Foster has a quick first step, will break tackles, and shows impressive acceleration. Ben Tate (he’s aggressive) and Justin Forsett (he’s serviceable) likely won’t play much.
Wes Welker (quick feet, strong hands) has the uncanny ability to get open and is the ultimate safety net for Tom Brady. When they get into a groove (which is often), defenders can be seen shaking their heads in disbelief. Deion Branch is slippery and has Brady’s trust. Brandon Lloyd has good speed and great body control but not Brady’s trust. A healthy tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski (he’s big and powerful) and Aaron Hernandez (he’s quick and athletic) is almost unfair. The Texans’ Andre Johnson is a handful. He’s smart, strong, and swift. Johnson is fearless over the middle and can hug the sideline, too. He has the versatility to thrive in the short, medium, and deep games. Kevin Walter has good hands but he’s been beaten up a lot. Tough tight end Owen Daniels has good speed and strong hands.
The return to health of left guard Logan Mankins has been huge for New England. One of the league’s surliest players, Mankins is a real scrapper. He hits everything in sight and plays to the whistle on every snap. He won’t win every battle but it will sure seem that way. Center Ryan Wendell’s solid play has been the biggest surprise of the season. Right guard Dan Connolly is solid. Towering tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder can be dominant at times but will be caught flat-footed at others. Houston center Chris Myers is strong and smart. Rookie right guard Ben Jones is a strong and hard-working widebody. Left guard Wade Smith is a wily veteran who gets off the ball quickly. Left tackle Duane Brown delivers an impressive punch at the snap. Right guard Derek Newton has impressive speed and athleticism.
Texans DE J.J. Watt vs. Patriots RT Sebastian Vollmer and LT Nate Solder
Watt has been an absolute menace this season. A 6-foot-5-inch, 295-pound whirling dervish from Waukesha, Wis., Watt has a lethal combination of instincts, quickness, and power. He has really strong hands and upper-body strength and can whip defenders around like rag dolls. His explosiveness can catch blockers off guard and if he gets a hold of your quarterback, say a prayer and call for help. How dominant has Watt (20.5 sacks) been? “He’s made more big plays than probably anybody defensively this year in the league,’’ said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Solder is 6-8 (but he looks taller) and 320 pounds (but he looks lighter). He has decent quickness and agility and uses those tools to ward off rushers and protect Tom Brady’s blind side. He lacks power (comparatively speaking) and because his position is so important to the health of The Franchise, when he gets beaten, everybody notices. And you can be sure No. 12 won’t let him forget his boo-boos. Look for the tight ends to help Solder (and Vollmer) with some chip blocks.
KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Texas roadhouse: Running the ball is huge for Houston. When Arian Foster and his big ugly friends up front (no offense) set the tone and make hay, it opens everything up for this unit and prevents teams from blitzing Matt Schaub (left).
2. Texas rangers: Linebackers Bradie James and Barrett Ruud must hold up pass catchers Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez at the line and prevent them from getting open quickly. This forces Tom Brady to hold on and allows J.J. Watt to do damage.
3. Texas leaguers: Schaub has to get into a rhythm with dump-offs to Foster and Owen Daniels to build his confidence; he looked zombie-like at times during the team’s meltdown at Gillette last month.
Vince Wilfork has been wreaking havoc all season. The massive yet nimble tackle has superb strength and smarts. He is equally adept at bull-rushing blockers or shooting gaps and either swallowing up ball carriers or redirecting them into the arms of teammates. Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love have become dependable contributors. On the edge, Chandler Jones (explosive) and Rob Ninkovich (smart and relentless) will bring pressure. Houston end J.J. Watt is a destructive force. He has tremendous size and strength, collapses the pocket quickly, and his favorite sport is kill the man with the ball. He also uses his long arms to bat down about 175 passes per game. Opposite end Antonio Smith is smart and shifty, and nose man Shaun Cody is a space eater.
Jerod Mayo is one of the more instinctive players in the league. He processes information quickly and uses his size, strength, and lateral quickness to get in on what seems like every tackle in every game. Brandon Spikes has become an invaluable piece to this defense and it’s obvious when he’s not on the field. The energetic Spikes is exceptional against the run. He finds runners quickly and delivers mind-numbing hits. Rookie Dont’a Hightower is an explosive hitter who will disappear at times. Bradie James, Connor Barwin, and Whitney Mercilus are the best of the bunch for Houston. James has good vision and quickness and will sift through blockers and get his nose in on a lot of tackles. The underrated Barwin has the speed to rush off the edge and the power to collect and punish runners. Mercilus is athletic and active.
The Patriots have made great strides here. From a unit that made every opposing quarterback look like Johnny Unitas to a unit that makes every opposing quarterback work hard for what he gets. Corners Aqib Talib (he’s the best cover guy), Alfonzo Dennard (he’s consistently improving), and Kyle Arrington (he’s solid in the slot) work hard. The rotating safety trio of Steve Gregory, Devin McCourty (he may see time at corner), and Patrick Chung provides solid support and some big hits. Texans corners Johnathan Joseph (he’s an excellent cover man with good ball skills) and Kareem Jackson (he’s fast and agile) are rarely out of position. Danieal Manning can play either corner or safety adequately. Safeties Glover Quin (he’s physical and rangy) and Shiloh Keo (he’s raw but willing) like to get involved.
New England has two very good return men in Devin McCourty on kickoffs and Wes Welker on punts. McCourty had a 24.2-yard average on 27 returns, including a 104-yarder for a touchdown. Welker, the full-time punt return man with Julian Edelman out, is always a threat. Stephen Gostkowski is among the best kickoff men in the league, consistently booming it through the end zone. He has hit on 29 of 35 field goal attempts. Zoltan Mesko had a 43.1-yard average on punts. Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner are coverage demons. Shayne Graham was 4 for 4 on field goals for the Texans last week but just 4 for 9 on 50-plus-yard attempts this season. Danieal Manning (kickoffs) and speed burner Keshawn Martin (punts) will handle the return duties for Houston. Alan Ball gets downfield in a hurry.
Texans RB Arian Foster vs. Patriots LB Jerod Mayo
Foster is one of the more consistent tailbacks in the league, collecting at least 1,200 yards rushing and 1,600 yards from scrimmage over each of the past three seasons. The 6-foot-1-inch, 228-pounder has excellent vision (if a crease is there, he’ll find it) and balance (he’s becoming better at deflecting hits and breaking tackles). Foster is especially adept at finding cutback lanes at the second level and continually frustrated the Bengals last week (140 yards rushing) by finding openings at the second level. He runs hard and most likely will have a chip on his shoulder Sunday after being held to 46 yards in his last trip to Foxborough. “It all starts with Foster,’’ said Patriots lineman Vince Wilfork. “The more touches he gets, the better their team is.’’ The 6-1, 250-pound Mayo is a powerfully built, heat-seeking missile with tremendous instincts and athleticism. Mayo has exceptional pre-snap recognition and is always around the ball. He’s technically the weak-side linebacker but he has the versatility and skill set to line up anywhere. He can rush the passer, is a beast against the run, and isn’t bad in coverage, either.
KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Short memories: The Patriots have to forget all about taking the Texans to the woodshed in December. Bill Belichick has been preaching all week that that game has nothing to do with this game. He is smart, so we believe him.
2. Middle school: Vince Wilfork (right) has to continue his season-long dominance in the center of New England’s defense. He has both the power to occupy multiple blockers and the speed to shoot gaps and make plays in the backfield.
3. Start fast: The Texans play much better when they are in front and can grind the clock. So come out sharp and get Houston behind the eight ball. That also will allow the Patriots to run a balanced offense, so Tom Brady won’t have to throw it 50 times.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Houston 17