The reigning AFC Champion Patriots took on the AFC South winning Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium last night in the AFC divisional playoff, with the winner moving on to the AFC Championship game next Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.
The Patriots overcame the Texans 41-28 in an exciting game to reach the AFC championship game for the seventh time in 12 years and now have the chance to retain the title they won last year. New England quarterback Tom Brady surpassed his idol Joe Montana with his 18th playoff win.
Offense was largely on top for both sides, though it wasn’t as straight forward as the score-line might suggest. The Houston Texans relied on the kick returns of Danieal Manning to gain huge yards. The Patriots simply had no answer to the cornerback’s running. The first drive of the game saw manning return to the Patriots 12 yard line, only for Schaub to go three-and-out and for Shayne Graham to kick the field goal.
New England started slowly, and had to adjust their offense when both Danny Woodhead and the talismanic Rob Gronkowski were injured early on. Gronkowski re-fractured his left forearm and will miss the remainder of the post season. Woodhead is likely to be fit to play against the Ravens, but could see his carries reduced due to the form of second year back Shane Vereen. After Woodhead’s injury Vereen was utilised in the running and passing game, making a diving catch on the sideline and scoring three touchdowns.
Wes Welker caught eight receptions for 130 yards as he remains Brady’s favourite receiver. This was the perfect time to remind his employers that he is out of contact in the summer, the number of dropped catches is something Welker and Brady must improve though, often the ball seemed to catch Welker in the fingertip area.
Stevan Ridley again looked like the Patriots best option when running the ball, but with Woodhead expected to be back this weekend and Vareen showing the versatility so beloved by Bill Belichick the New England running game looks good.
The tipping point of the game was arguably the third quarter interception of Texans quarterback Matt Scaub by Rob Ninkovich, the linebacker had dropped a bit deeper than usual and Schaub put the ball right into his hands. A few plays later, everyone but Brady and Brandon Lloyd played out a running play that left Brady to find Lloyd in single coverage, a mere jink away from diving in for the touchdown.
Much was made pre-game of the supposed battle between Tom Brady and J.J.Watt. The Texans defensive end had just half a sack and zero passes defensed. Brady and co. practiced with tennis racquets and brooms this week and it seemed to do the trick as Brady consistently found open receivers.
The Texans may have scored 28 points in this game but Matt Schaub didn’t look good for the first three quarters, though he did make a couple of key throws late in the game. Arian Foster was constantly able to find space. Foster finished with 90 yards rushing, the first time he has been sub 100 yards in four playoff games. He was the leading rusher in the game, and had a rushing touchdown. Foster was a viable threat in the passing game too as the New England defense consistently left him open.
The Patriots arial defense had some struggles against Houston, but it is not every week you play against Andre Johnson, the talented Texans wide receiver gave Aqib Taliban a tough afternoon. Rookie Texans receiver DeVier Posey showed he could be one for the future by scoring a touchdown in unlikely circumstances, it took three attempts to pull the ball in to his chest and he ended up on his back, bringing the ball under control just before he slide out of the end zone on his back.
The Patriots run defense may have done well overall but Arian Foster still made a lot of big gains in the rushing game, New England can’t allow Ray Rice to do the same on Sunday.