So much for the BCS championship game making up for the dud that was wild-card weekend.
Alabama’s violent thrashing of Notre Dame on Monday night made the NFL’s postseason opening round look like compelling football, an impressive feat given that three of four games qualified as clunkers.
On paper, it would appear that more one-sided affairs could be looming in the divisional-round — at least on the AFC’s docket.
The Ravens and Texans, both outclassed in their regular-season meetings with the Broncos and Patriots, respectively, didn’t exactly set the world on fire against inferior opponents last weekend.
And while I’m not prepared to predict any major upsets, I expect both rematches will be more closely contested, particularly when the Texans visit Foxborough for the second time in five weeks.
No, the Texans’ offense isn’t fixed. Yes, Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski, who didn’t play in the first New England victory, is healthy. Last time I checked, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still Brady and Belichick.
None of that alters my belief that, on their best, the Texans can play with the Patriots.
Of course, we haven’t seen the Texans on their best in quite some time. We surely didn’t see that in the 42-14 Patriots’ bombing in Week 14, when Houston simply wasn’t ready for the moment. There was so much that was inexcusable about that game, from Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez hauling in his first of two TDs totally uncontested, to Matt Schaub putting the kibosh on an impressive first-quarter drive for the Texans by committing a cardinal sin for QBs in today’s NFL: throwing late over the middle of the field.
The Texans were humbled in Foxborough, though, and while they didn’t immediately bounce back, losing two of their final three games to end the season, I think there are some elements that should work more in their favor this time around.
First and foremost, Jonathan Joseph and the rest of the Texans’ DBs are playing at a much higher level now than they were then.
Will Brady still target inexperienced Texans sub-package players like Shiloh Keo and Brandon Harris? Of course. Will safeties Glover Quin and Danieal Manning face a much more difficult challenge this time with Gronk in the mix? You bet.
But the Texans’ defense actually settled down after a rocky start in the first game. Tom Brady was only sacked once, but he was put on his back a number of times. Houston might be better off with Barrett Ruud starting alongside Bradie James, as Tim Dobbins is inferior in coverage and was exploited on numerous occasions by Brady. Connor Barwin has been a disappointment in a contract year, but he is trending in the right direction after a strong showing against Cincinnati. There is no question J.J. Watt is going to leave his imprint on the game.
Arian Foster has been one of the postseason's top performers each of the past two years. After the Texans in Week 14 quickly fell into a 21-0 hole, they were forced to abandon Foster. If Schaub avoids that mistake on the second drive and the Texans get on the board, who knows what might have happened? I can assure you Foster would have been more heavily involved.
In reality, Schaub did throw the critical interception to Devin McCourty and the Houston offense has remained in neutral ever since.
The bottom line is that the Texans trusted Schaub enough to reward him with a long-term extension in the offseason. Now, they have to trust he can play a clean game and make enough plays to give his team a chance.
Remember, the popular perception a season ago was that the difference between Houston winning and losing in the divisional round was third-stringer T.J. Yates playing instead of Schaub.
For better or worse, the Texans again have their guy. I don't expect him to be the difference — not in a duel against Brady and New England's high-powered offense — but I know the Texans paid him beause they think he can deliver in big moments, his critics' biggest knock on him.
Will the Texans' season be a disappointment if it again ends on the road in the divisional-round? Not necessarily. What will be disappointing is if they again get their doors blown off, and Schaub's critics get the last laugh, with the QB at the root of Houston's problems.
What better opportunity for Schaub to silence those critics and show the Texans they made the right decision.
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