Will Houston be a problem?
Patriots at Texans
Today, 1 p.m., on Channel 4 (Line: Texans by 7)
When the Patriots runSince there is no true workhorse in this backfield, it’s a safe bet today’s carries will be evenly distributed among Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk, and maybe even a dash of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Maroney’s recent bout with fumble-itis is perplexing because he has been pretty sure-handed throughout his career. New England needs Maroney’s combination of speed and power to make noise in the postseason. He’ll get a shot to get out of the doghouse today. Morris has deceptive quickness and toughness but last week’s 90-yard-plus effort was an aberration. Taylor could be the key to the Patriots’ playoff success. He’s a versatile runner who can freeze defenders with a lethal stutter-step. He also has fresh legs after missing most of the season with ankle woes. Green-Ellis is a tough north-south runner with decent vision and speed. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he gets 15 carries or no carries today. The key - as always - is the big guys up front. Left guard Logan Mankins sets the tone for the offensive line. He delivers a jolting initial block before moving to the second level. Right guard Stephen Neal is athletic and smart. These two must get locked on to linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing. Ryans has great instincts and a nonstop motor. He reads plays quickly, slides off blockers, and pounds runners. Cushing has the speed and muscle to seal the edge and prevent runners from bouncing outside.
When the Patriots passIf you’re a fan of watching Tom Brady, you’d better be on your couch at 1 p.m. because he could be done for the day by 1:15. Brady has been battling myriad nagging injuries (shoulder, finger, ribs) and there’s no reason to risk aggravating any of them. Brian Hoyer will take some snaps today, and he’ll be tested because the Texans still have a lot to play for. The rookie is at his best when he’s asked to be a caretaker. Hoyer has decent arm strength but is more accurate on underneath throws and screens. He struggles when asked to do too much. He is tough and won’t be intimidated. Hoyer’s top targets will be Julian Edelman, Kevin Faulk, and tight ends Benjamin Watson and Chris Baker. Wes Welker and Randy Moss will make only token appearances, if any. Edelman has good hands and quickness and isn’t afraid to go over the middle. Faulk is a superb screen player. Defensive end Mario Williams has a rare combination of size (6 feet 6 inches, 295 pounds), power, and speed. He explodes off the edge, catches blockers flat-footed, and collapses the pocket. When he hits quarterbacks, their mothers cringe. On the opposite side, Antonio Smith relies on an explosive first step and boundless energy to rattle quarterbacks. Patriot tackles Matt Light and Nick Kaczur will need help from the tight ends to contain these two monsters.
When the Texans runIt looks as though rookie Arian Foster will get the bulk of the carries today. An undrafted player out of Tennessee, Foster (6 feet 1 inch, 226 pounds) has good size and speed but lacks discipline, explosiveness, and consistency. He also lacks an electric first step but does show good acceleration through creases and does his best work on the second level where he can use his power to break tackles and run over smaller defenders. Chris Brown (6-3, 235) is a physical runner with strong legs and a nasty streak. He takes on all comers and can absorb and deflect big hits. Ryan Moats (5-8, 210) is a slasher with good vision. He hides behind blockers before sliding through openings and reaching the second level. He lacks a second gear and is injury-prone. Chris Myers is a smart and tough center who takes excellent angles and gives maximum effort on every snap. Left guard Kasey Studdard is a solid tactician who lacks athleticism and speed. Rookie right guard Antoine Caldwell played center at Alabama and is an excellent athlete. He moves well laterally and is adept at picking off charging linebackers. Vince Wilfork is an elite run defender but he won’t play much if at all today. Ditto for Ty Warren. Mike Wright, Ron Brace, and Myron Pryor have shown they can handle the job of neutralizing centers. Inside linebackers Jerod Mayo (smart and tough), Gary Guyton (his reaction time needs improvement), and Junior Seau (will he ever get old?) will hunt the running backs.
When the Texans passThis attack is led by one of the league’s breakout players: quarterback Matt Schaub. Michael Vick’s former backup in Atlanta has finally moved into the upper echelon of NFL passers. Schaub (6 feet 5 inches, 240 pounds) has excellent size and a big arm. He can play the role of the traditional, dropback, quick-release QB or he can make plays outside the pocket. The knock on Schaub has been his inability to make good decisions on a consistent basis. This year, however, Schaub has cut down on his mistakes and developed into a real on-field threat. It doesn’t hurt that Schaub’s top target is Andre Johnson, perhaps the most complete receiver in the NFL. Johnson explodes off the line, reaches top speed quickly, runs precise routes, and has strong hands. Kevin Walter (6-3, 218) is a big target who can outmuscle corners off the line and isn’t afraid to go over the middle. Fourth-year pro Joel Dreessen has stepped in at tight end for the injured Owen Daniels. Ryan Moats and fullback Vonta Leach are better-than-average receivers. Leigh Bodden has been New England’s best corner, while Shawn Springs showed last week he still can play at a high level. Bill Belichick’s defense features four productive safeties in Brandon Meriweather (good range), Brandon McGowan (good hitter), James Sanders (good instincts), and Patrick Chung (good speed).
Texans' key playerAndre Johnson
He's the guy every receiver in the league aspires to be like. This powerful speed demon is a threat to score 6 every time he touches the ball. Oh yeah, and he throws a vicious stiff-arm.
How he beats you: With explosive strength and speed. He simply overpowers smaller defenders and runs past the bigger ones. If you don't double-team him, you're making a big mistake. Make that huge.
How to shut him down: Not sure that's been done yet. He will occasionally lose concentration, and that's when you have to hammer him. When he gets his hands on the ball, you have to get your hands on him.
Texans' keys to victory1. El passo: The running game is abysmal, so stick with your strengths, and that's Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson. The more No. 8 gets it to No. 80, the better chance you have at victory.
2. Two-steppers: Returners Andre' Davis (kickoffs) and Jacoby Jones (punts) must use their exceptional vision and speed to make something happen on special teams.
3. Rangers: Defensive ends Mario Williams and Antonio Smith have to put the squeeze on the Patriot quarterback to stunt drives and get the ball into their stars' hands.
Patriots keys to victory1. Brian's song: It may not be a key to victory, but it's a key to good sense. Send Tom Brady to the sideline early and let rookie Brian Hoyer see what he can do against Houston's first-teamers.
2. Taylor made: Let Fred Taylor get 10-12 carries to keep his rehab from ankle woes on target. But don't keep him in too long. You'll need him healthy next week.
3. Secret service: It may be a long shot, but these clubs could face off again in a week at Foxborough, so dont show too much. Treat this like a glorified exhibition; that could be a key to victory next week.