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Sunday divisional-playoffs preview: Tom Brady will lead potent Patriots offense to AFC title game

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Tom Brady will have a full complement of weapons on Sunday (Getty Images)

Houston Texans at New England Patriots
Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013
Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.

The Houston Texans have the most wins in franchise history, won a second consecutive AFC South title and, after last week's 19-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, will be looking for their first ever road playoff win against a New England Patriots team that thoroughly beat them 42-14 in Gillette Stadium less than five weeks ago.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick doesn't think too much should be read into that first meeting.

"There were several things in that game that went our way but I don’t think that’s really that significant at this point," Belichick said on Monday. "We just have to go back and make sure that we’re well prepared for the things that they do. The plays will match up differently and I’m sure there will be new plays that weren’t in that game. I don’t think you can overanalyze that game.

"We’re playing a team – we have our team, they have their team and it’s a big picture thing. Every game comes down to some specific plays and matchups but you know never know that’s how it’s going to go at the beginning. You just have to wait and see how it unfolds. We’re just going to focus on our preparation and what we do and what they’ve shown that they’ve done and try to be ready for it all."

When the Texans have the ball

Last Saturday's win over the Bengals showed how much the Texans' offense revolves around Arian Foster. Excluding penalties, the Texans ran 77 offensive plays for 420 yards. Foster touched the ball on 40 (52 percent) of those plays, producing 174 yards, or 41 percent of the offense. When the Patriots and Texans met on Dec. 10, Foster had just 19 touches – 29 percent of the 65 offensive plays – and gained 85 yards, 26 percent of the 323 yards the Texans' offense generated in that 42-14 loss.

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Foster will likely have a more prominent role in the offense in the rematch and will be fueled by the comments made by Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy earlier in the week. Unfortunately for Foster and the Texans, the Patriots run defense is a much tougher opponent than a columnist. During the regular season, the Patriots ranked ninth against the run, allowing an average of 101.9 yards per game. According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots' run defense ranked sixth in run defense DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average). New England's stout run defense is a function of 11 guys playing with discipline, which caught the attention of Foster, who had just 46 rushing yards against the Patriots in December.

"I think they have a lot of talented athletes on their defense," Foster said on Thursday. "They have guys like (defensive tackle Vince) Wilfork, and that’s what he’s been doing for years. They have very fast, athletic linebackers. I think (linebacker) Jerod Mayo is one of the best linebackers in the game, and that’s not biased just because I know him, but he is. And then (linebacker Brandon) Spikes, he’s a very physical downhill player. And then they have safeties that fit well in the run game. That’s what makes them effective."

The Texans could have success against the Patriots in the passing game. In the regular season, New England ranked 29th in passing yards allowed per game, 28th in passing yards per play and were 23rd in Football Outsiders' pass defense DVOA metric. Outside of Andre Johnson, the Texans are not particularly deep or reliant on wide receivers in the passing game. In last week's win over the Bengals, only 11 of Matt Schaub's 38 pass attempts were to wide receivers (Johnson and Kevin Walter). Football Outsiders has the Patriots ranked 14th and sixth against opponents' No. 1 and No. 2 receivers, but are 30th against "other wide receivers", 29th against tight ends and 23rd against running backs.

When the Patriots have the ball

The Texans had the NFL's seventh-ranked defense, but were third in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA metric, ranking in the Top 5 against both the run and the pass. Last week, the Texans allowed just 198 yards of total offense to the Bengals as J.J. Watt showed why he is the best defensive player in the NFL with five tackles, one sack and a pair of passes defensed.

New England's offense is slightly better than the Bengals' offense, largely due to the presence of Tom Brady, who had an MVP-worthy season with 4,827 passing yards, 34 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. Brady finished the season ranked first in Football Outsiders' DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) metric.

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“There's no simple answer on him, obviously," Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said of Brady. "He’s great against the three-man rush, a four-man rush, a five-man rush and even blitz coverage. We played a lot of zone against him last time and he did a good job against that. You have to put pressure on him somehow, but you’d like to be able to do it with a four-man rush and play man or zone, but the reason you can’t do it is he’s so good and he’s got such great receivers."

Even with All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski limited to 11 games and less than 60 percent of the offensive snaps, and Aaron Hernandez playing in 10 games and less than half the snaps, Brady and the Patriots finished first in total offense, scoring offense, first downs per game, third down percentage and red zone percentage. The Patriots ranked first in Football Outsiders' team offense DVOA and were first in passing DVOA and fourth in rushing DVOA. In other words, the Patriots possess a balanced offense that can beat an opponent in any number of ways.

Running back Stevan Ridley had a breakout season, rushing for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns. Wide receiver Wes Welker went from having his current role and future with the team questioned after catching three passes for 14 yards in the season-opener to leading the team with 118 receptions and 1,364 yards, earning a fifth straight trip to the Pro Bowl. After some hiccups, Tom Brady and Brandon Lloyd finally got on the same page, with the field-stretching receiver catching 74 passes for 911 yards and four touchdowns. New England will be at its peak on Sunday, however, as Gronkowski and Hernandez will be playing together for just the seventh time this season. That duo will have Phillips working overtime this week.

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"They give you problems, obviously," Phillips said of Gronkowski and Hernandez. "They’ve got two great tight ends, two Pro Bowl-type tight ends, besides a receiver (Welker) who has set all kinds of records; and Lloyd is a really good receiver too. They’ve got threats all over the field."

How it could go

The Texans defense and running game should keep things close, but as Phillips noted, the Patriots have too many weapons on offense to keep in check. Between Gronkowski and Hernandez, Welker and Lloyd, and the Patriots' up-tempo, no-huddle approach, Sunday's game could be the one where the Texans really feel the losses of inside linebackers Brian Cushing, Tim Dobbins and Daryl Sharpton, as well as nickel corner Brice McCain, to injury. Another X-factor could come on special teams, an area of the game where New England ranked fourth and Houston ranked dead last, according to Football Outsiders.

Prediction: Patriots 27, Texans 20

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