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Four points of emphasis for Patriots

01.11.13 at 9:19 pm ET
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As we come to the end of a week’€™s worth of analysis, here are four points of emphasis for the Patriots heading into Sunday’€™s divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium.

The Patriots have to take advantage of the fact that they will have their entire pass-catching group together for the first time since Week One. It’€™s remarkable considering the number of offensive options New England was able to pull together before the start of the season, but the Patriots will go into this game with a reasonable facsimile of their complete offensive package. (I say “reasonable facsimile” because we are all still unsure of what sort of condition Rob Gronkowski‘€™s arm is in. The big tight end appeared to be protecting his arm for large portions of the regular-season finale against the Dolphins, and while he’€™s been back at practice on a regular basis since then, it’€™s still unclear what sort of Gronkowski we’€™ll see on Sunday.) Regardless, it’€™s remarkable to think that, because of injury, this week will be the first time quarterback Tom Brady should have his full complement of offensive options.

The Patriots have to attack the Texans secondary. New England did a good job going after a hobbled group of Houston defensive backs, and they need to do it again this time around. As previously stated, New England will have its full collection of offensive option available, and this should create matchup problems for the Texans, particularly when it comes to trying to defend Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Get Danny Woodhead involved. The undersized running back has been able to bring a different dynamic to the New England backfield, one the Patriots haven’€™t had since Kevin Faulk in 2008. Woodhead was the first New England running back since Faulk to finish a season with at least 40 carries and 40 catches, but relative to the rest of the season, Woodhead didn’€™t get much run the first time around against the Texans. According to Pro Football Focus, he played just 17 of a possible 76 offensive snaps, and had two catches on three targets for 34 yards, as well as one carry for four yards.

Keep Tom Brady upright. In a quarterback-driven league, it all flows from the signal-caller. That’€™s particularly the case with the Patriots, who have the best over-30 quarterback of all-time under center for them. In the first meeting, the Texans only managed to come away with one sack, but they did a good job getting pressure on Brady. As he has been for large chunks of his career, the quarterback acted as his own best offensive lineman, moving deftly in the pocket when needed and displaying a keen overall awareness when it came to avoiding the rush. (To put it delicately, he got rid of the ball before J.J. Watt arrived looked to beat the snot out of him.) In this one, there are three things the Patriots can do to cut down on Texans pressure: One, use the running game more in an attempt to keep the pass rushers off balance. Two, as an extension of that, create opportunities out of play action, something they were able to utilize effectively for portions of the first game between the two teams. And three, rely on the offensive line (as well as Gronkowski) to provide the requisite pass protection that the quarterback requires. On that last point, it will again be another test for an offensive line that struggled over the final five regular-season games. In that stretch, the Patriots yielded 12 sacks over the last five games. The line needs to get back to the form it flashed midway through the year, where it allowed three sacks in a six-game stretch. More of that is needed Sunday against the Texans.

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Four points of emphasis for Texans

01.11.13 at 9:15 pm ET
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As we come to the end of a week’€™s worth of analysis, here are four points of emphasis for the Texans heading into Sunday’€™s divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium.

The Texans can’€™t be conservative. Houston did go for it twice on fourth down against the Patriots in December and came up short on both occasions, but in the context of both situations, the moves made sense. When facing New England, you can’€™t coach conservatively, and part of that means taking some chances. In that same vein, Houston cannot continue to settle for field goals — since their loss to the Patriots last month, the Texans have gone 3-for-13 in the red zone. Relying on kicker Shayne Graham to win this game for you isn’€™t going to get it done.

The Texans have to start fast offensively. So much of what the Texans do is predicated on them playing with a lead. They’€™re at their best when they run the ball, utilizing a tricky zone-blocking scheme that can be difficult to stop, as Arian Foster continues to bang away at opposing defenses. The success of the running game opens up play action — which Matt Schaub can execute as well as anyone in the league — and that allows Houston to pick up big yards in the passing game, as Andre Johnson is particularly adept at finding holes in a defense that’€™s cheating up in hopes of bottling up Foster. That didn’€™t happen the first time these two teams played. New England took advantage of some Houston errors, and the Texans were forced to throw the ball to try and catch up. That’€™s not what they want to do. If you’€™re Houston, you want to start with a steady and balanced attack that features a heavy dose of Foster out of the gate, which — theoretically — leads to Schaub connecting with Foster. If they stay away from digging themselves a 14-point deficit this time around, they could get their shot to execute the sort of game plan they want against New England.

Schaub has to pick his game up. In that same vein, the Texans quarterback has struggled over the last month-plus, not only at the end of the regular season but into the playoffs. While his completion rate has remained EXACTLY the same over the last five games as it was over the first 12 (he was averaging 22-for-34 for 65 percent going into the New England game, and has managed to keep the same average since then), his accuracy has taken a big dip. He had 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions coming into that game, but in his last five starts (including the wild-card win over the Bengals), he’€™s had one touchdown and four picks. That sort of output won’€™t be enough against the high-scoring Patriots offense.

The Texans’€™ defense has to control the line of scrimmage. Every team that has had success against the Patriots the last two-plus years has managed to control the New England offensive line. Opponents who have gotten physical with the Patriots — and managed to bring consistent pressure on Brady with a minimum number of rushers — have done well. Regardless of whether or not the Texans decide to send as much pressure as they did the first time around — or even decide to try J.J. Watt in the middle as a way to change up their look — Houston has to figure out a way to be able to collapse the pocket on Brady and the Patriots. One thing that the Texans can take from that 2010 playoff contest between New England and New York — the one where the Jets pulled off the upset — is that they were able to get after Brady with a relatively small number of rushers and flood the rest of the field with zone coverage. (A change from their usual approach of man coverage.) For what it’€™s worth, the Texans are more of a man coverage team. You’€™ll know they’€™ve taken a page out of Rex Ryan‘€™s book if it looks like they’re playing mostly zone.

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Stevan Ridley knows full well Pats ‘can’t have’ his turnovers

01.11.13 at 6:13 pm ET
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FOXBORO — One of the highlights of media availability in the last week has been the Patriots working on ball security, especially Stevan Ridley. Bill Belichick has had Ridley carry a ball in each hand with a defender on each side trying to pry the ball loose. He has been the only Patriot spotted with such focus on taking care of the ball.

Of course, there’s good reason for that. There were the two fumbles at the end of the 2011 season, including in the divisional rout over the Broncos. Then there were the two fumbles in back-to-back games this season against the Texans and the 49ers. His fumble on the first drive of the game against Houston could’ve been costly but Aaron Hernandez raced over and recovered it before the Texans could pounce. He wasn’t as lucky the next week against the 49ers. He hasn’t fumbled since in 38 carries.

“Can’t have it, can’t have it,” Ridley said Friday. “It’s crunch time, man. And turnovers, however they come — fumbles, interceptions, drops, whatever — we can’t have that.”

Then, he turned the focus on himself.

“I don’t want to be that guy that they’re pointing the finger at, and saying, ‘My bad.’ I’m trying to play solid football and play perfect football,” he said.

Of course, if Ridley and the Patriots are going to have offensive success against the Texans Sunday, they need to replicate what they did to J.J. Watt the last time, when they held the All-Pro without a sack or a tackle for a loss.

“He’s a playmaker,” Ridley said. “For us, whether it’s in the backfield, catching him on the way out, running routes, whatever we have to do, we have to get away from him, put two hats on him, make sure he’s blocked, make sure he’s covered up because he’s the leader of their defense. If he get momentum, we’re going to have trouble all night.”

Ridley was then asked about Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and the suggestion that Wes Welker is not the “physical” receiver that A.J. Green is and may not require Johnathan Joseph to cover him.

“I have no idea that he said anything about that but Wes Welker is a very important part of our offense,” Ridley said laughing. “We need everybody we can get, and that’s somebody who’s been on the field for the Patriots for a long time, somebody we depend on in crunch situations so I don’t know about his size or whatever that is but Wes gets the job done and I’ll be looking be looking for ’83’ on Sunday.”

Read More: A.J. Green, houston texans, j.j. watt, Johnathan Joseph

Pats remove 15 from injury report including Rob Ninkovich, Rob Gronkowski ‘probable’

01.11.13 at 4:43 pm ET
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FOXBORO — In a sign they should be close to full strength for Sunday’s AFC divisional game against the Texans at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots removed 15 of their 20 players from the injury report on Friday, including linebacker Rob Ninkovich (hip). The five remaining players are all probable, including Rob Gronkowski, Alfonzo Dennard, Trevor Scott, Marquice Cole and Nick McDonald.

The Patriots listed 20 players as officially “limited” on Wednesday and Thursday before revising their list after practice on Friday. The Patriots practiced in sweats and shells all week long in preparation for the Texans, who list 15 players – all “probable” on their Friday injury report. Notable names on Houston’s list include TE Owen Daniels (shoulder), TE Garrett Graham (concussion), OLB Brooks Reed (groin) and CB Johnathan Joseph (illness).

Here is Friday’s complete report:

Full Participation

TE Rob Gronkowski (forearm/hip) Probable

DB Marquice Cole (finger) Probable

CB Alfonzo Dennard (knee) Probable

OL Nick McDonald (shoulder) Probable

DE Trevor Scott (knee) Probable

For more, visit the Patriots page at weei.com/patriots.

Read More: houston texans, New England Patriots, nfl, NFL Playoffs

Nuggetpalooza: Mining the stats before the Patriots vs. Texans playoff tilt

01.11.13 at 1:35 pm ET
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The Patriots’ road to Super Bowl XLVII gets underway Sunday afternoon against the Houston Texans, who New England manhandled, 42-14, back in Week 14. Get ready with some statistical nuggets that jumped out at me:

* – Houston has failed to score a first half touchdown in their last three straight games (including last week), their longest such streak since they went four games in a row back in 2005 (128 games ago). The Patriots haven’t gone TWO straight games without a first half touchdown since Weeks 2 and 3, 2008, right after Tom Brady went down to injury.

* – When the Patriots drove inside their opponents’ 30-yard-line this season, they generally made the most of the opportunities, scoring touchdowns 63% of the time, the second highest rate in the league. Houston’s offense ranked 13th (46%). In their wild card win over the Bengals last week, Houston drove to or inside the 30 on five different occasions, but managed only one touchdown to go with four field goals.

* – New England has won their last 20 (and 31 of their last 32) home games in which they’ve scored a first quarter touchdown. That’s the longest such streak since at least 1995:

20 – Patriots, 2011-2012
17 – Ravens, 2006-2007
16 – Colts, 2006-2007
15 – Eagles, 2004-2005
15 – Rams, 2003

Note this: The Patriots are 7-0 all-time at home in the playoffs when they score a first quarter touchdown.

* – The Patriots were “Kings of the Long Drive” in 2012, putting up an NFL-high 41 drives lasting 10 or more plays. That tied their club (and league) record that they set in 2007. Thing is, Houston’s defense allowed only 17 such drives this season, the fewest in the league.

Note this: When Houston’s opponent did cobble together a drive of 10 or more plays, they generally cashed those drives in for points, to the tune of 4.35 points on average, the second highest such average allowed in the league. I think you’ll recognize the only defense that allowed more per 10 play drive:

4.40 – Patriots
4.35 – Texans
4.35 – Eagles
4.33 – Raiders

Note this too: New England’s defense allowed scores on 19 of the first 20 drives of 10 or more plays against their defense this season (11 touchdowns and eight field goals, an average of 5.05 points per drive). However they closed the season allowing just three field goals over the last five such drives. When these two teams matched up in Week 14, the Patriots had one such drive, resulting in a touchdown, while Houston’s one long drive did not result in points. Read the rest of this entry »

Bill Belichick says his Patriots are like Navy SEALs: ‘On a mission’

01.11.13 at 12:38 pm ET
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FOXBORO — No head coach in the NFL is more fond of the United States military than Bill Belichick. And no coach draws comparisons between the armed services and football than the Patriots head coach.

This is a head coach who is well read in the military and war practices of Ghengis Kahn and Sun Tzu. This is a man whose father Stephen Belichick raised him in Annapolis and cultured him in the ways of the Navy.

Just as recently as Wednesday, Belichick said “you don’t win a war by digging a foxhole.”

So, it came as no surprise when he was at it again on Friday when asked about his state of mind and his team’s preparedness for Sunday against the Texans.

‘€œWhen you talk to the Navy SEALs and those guys about when they go on a mission, [they say] ‘€˜We get there and we had practiced going over a 6-foot wall [but] the wall is 30-feet high.’€™ That’€™s the way it is in the NFL.

‘€œYou practice for [and] you think you’€™re going to swim across a 200-yard lake and the lake is 800 yards. You have to get across it. You get in an NFL game and think you’€™re going to get this, and you get that. You think they’€™re going to play this guy and they play some other guy. You face new challenges. That’€™s part of the gamesmanship and part of the competition. You figure out which team can do it better than the other one.

‘€œThere’€™s always that unknown in the game. Things happen that you just can’€™t predict or you prepare for because they’€™re working on things and we don’€™t know what they’€™re doing. There will be something that will cause us to make an adjustment. I’€™m sure we’€™ll do the same thing to them somewhere along the line. Everybody has to figure it out and make the best of it.

‘€œThat’€™s what makes this a great game.’€

Belichick is coaching in his 45th NFL playoff game on Sunday, and he is as excited for this chance at a Super Bowl run as any previous year.

‘€œI think the team is excited and ready to get into the NFL playoffs this year,’€ Belichick said. ‘€œHopefully we’€™ll have a good day of preparation today and use the next 48 hours or so to get totally focused on the task at hand, and go out there and be ready to play well on Sunday afternoon. I think that’€™s where we are.

‘€œWe’€™re all excited to get going. It’€™s a great opportunity, a good football team coming in here. We know we’€™re going to have to play well, play our best game to win. But that’€™s the way it should be at this time of year. Hopefully we can do it.’€

Read More: Bill Belichick, Ghengis Kahn, houston texans, New England Patriots

Third straight day of perfect attendance for Pats practice

01.11.13 at 12:15 pm ET
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FOXBORO — For a third straight day, the Patriots had perfect attendance Friday at their practice in sweats and shells inside Gillette Stadium.

The Patriots have listed 20 players as limited in their first two practices this week, including linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who injured his left hip in the season finale against the Dolphins.

The Patriots will have a walkthrough on Saturday before taking on the Houston Texans in an AFC divisional contest Sunday afternoon at 4:30 at Gillette Stadium.

For more, visit the Patriots team page at weei.com/patriots.

Read More: houston texans, New England Patriots, nfl, NFL Playoffs
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