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Four points of emphasis for Patriots

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 [1].

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 [2]‘€™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 [3] 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 [4].

Get Danny Woodhead [5] 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 [6] 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 [7]. 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.