Divisional playoff game: 5 keys, prediction

FOXBOROUGH – Soon enough, the Patriots will be 60 minutes away from hosting the AFC Championship Game. As if New England needed the extra motivation, the Ravens put a Vince Wilfork-sized carrot out there by knocking off Brett Favre, I mean Peyton Manning, and the Broncos.

The Texans’ chore just got that much harder, but they can still pull off the big upset. Here are the five keys for the Patriots avoiding a stunning loss:

Stay within yourself: The Patriots are a more talented football team than the Texans. As long as they take care of the ball, don’t try to do too much, and do their job, the players will get it done. This also goes for the coaches. The Patriots have had a very long layoff and are playing a team they ripped through. There is a potential for the Patriots’ coaches, namely offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, to think outside the box to deliver a different type of victory. Don’t. The box is just fine the way it is, especially against a less talented team.
Deliver the first punch: The Texans are going to come in dead set on avenging their embarrassing loss from December, and they’ll try to do that by asserting themselves early both physically and in attitude. Don’t let them. The Patriots should land the first blow, come out with their best stuff, and show the Texans they still aren’t good enough.
Stay on your feet: The Texans aren’t going to morph into a passing offense overnight, so they are still going to have to win through Arian Foster and the running game. Houston didn’t execute well the first time around. If they can get Wilfork, Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love on the ground with more regularity, the Texans will be able to run the ball. The Patriots have to thwart the backside cut and roll blocks by staying agile and on their feet. If they do that, Houston will again have trouble running the ball.
Hit short: If the Texans have any advantage offensively, it’s matching up their tight ends and running backs in coverage against the Patriots’ linebackers. It was a mismatch the first time around, it’s just that Matt Schaub was too busy playing scared. The Patriots need to hit Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham, James Casey, Foster and Ben Tate whenever they get a chance. Reroute those guys, or you’re going to be staring at the back of a lot of jerseys.
Limit Watt early: Texans DE J.J. Watt had some good production against the Patriots the first time around, but it happened after the Patriots were already up 21-0. The Texans will scheme up some stuff to get Watt more involved early, and the Patriots need to react well to any curveballs. An early big shot on Tom Brady can change the entire game because it will speed him up in the pocket. Expect a lot of quick throws away from Watt, and inside zone runs at him (double team at the point) to limit Watt early.



Unless there’s a fluky turnover early, this game should be close for the first half. The third quarter is crucial. That’s when the Patriots need to do their best work, because I’m still not sure they’re a good fourth-quarter team in a tight game against a physical opponent. I think the Patriots find breathing room in the fourth quarter, with Danny Woodhead being a big key out of the backfield.

Patriots 32, Texans 20

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