Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Pats will prepare for Foster left, Foster right
It didn't matter the down. It barely matter the distance. Up against the Bengals and one of the NFL's premier defenses, the Texans wisely gave the ball to Arian Foster. Then they gave it to him again. And again. And again.
By the time they were finished earning the chance to face the Patriots in next Sunday's divisional round, with a 19-13 wild-card win over Cincinnati, Foster had touched the ball 40 times - which was just eight fewer snaps than the Bengals ran as an entire team, and the nature of which revealed just how heavily Houston had entrusted its lead running back.
Only once all game did the Texans go more than three consecutive plays without putting the ball in his hands, and that came during a drive at the end of the second quarter where they were attempting to cover 89 yards in 70 seconds. After that series they never went more than two consecutive plays without letting him handle the load. And over the course of a game in which they held the ball for almost 39 minutes, there were only 10 sequences where he went more than one play between touches.
By the time it was over, his 140 had made him the first back in NFL history to rush for at least 100 yards in each of his first three playoff contests. And Houston had been reminded that their best chance of beating the Patriots next weekend is to let Foster lead the way.
"Everybody feeds off him and he's proved it throughout his career so far that every time he gets in a big game, he shows up," Houston fullback James Casey said Saturday. "He leads us. He puts us on his back, especially with games like that. He's our go-to guy.
"Of course we have Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub - it helps everything else out, helps Matt, and helps Andre, that's what we have to do throughout the playoffs. Arian's playing well, I think we're playing well offensively."
Kubiak and company forgot that for a while, though. It cost the Texans both a bye and the chance to be playing the divisional round at home, and the correlation between Foster's reduced role and Houston's 1-3 finish isn't difficult to see.
En route to a record of 11-1, Foster averaged 24 carries and 92 yards per game, but in three December defeats he averaged just 14 carries and 52 yards, including a 15 for 46 effort against the Patriots that sent his team into its tailspin. In the Texans' lone win over that stretch he had 27 hauls for 165 yards, no surprise, but it apparently wasn't enough to convince the coaches that he was the key.
At least until Saturday, when the Texans seemed to suddenly remember their identity. So much of what they do is based off the run game and the play-action opportunities born of its success, simply establishing him as a threat makes everything else function better. That's why the Texans are now 12-0 when he has at least 20 touches, compared to 1-4 when he doesn't.
And why limiting Foster's effectiveness will be the top priority of the Patriots' defense on Sunday.
"The running game controls the game for them, it sets up their play-action passes, puts them in a lot of third-and-medium, third-and-short situations," Pats coach Bill Belichick said on a Sunday conference call. "There's no question he's a key guy for Houston and their offense, but his production also complements the other players, as well. We'll definitely have to do a good job on him."
In their initial meeting the Patriots did an excellent job, in fact. Foster picked up 12 of his 46 yards on his first official carry, then was limited to two yards or less on nine of his next 14 attempts. Stopping the run is New England's defensive strength, and that night it enabled them to quickly disarm their guests.
Houston was forced out of its element, and with that it lost confidence well before a 42-14 result went final. "We just didn't play with the type of swagger and the energy and the urgency that they played with," safety Danieal Manning said Saturday.
But when Foster is the focal point, the Texans are a different team. For all their difficulties over the previous month, and as relieved as their collective reaction made them look when it was finally over, they seemed to play with a confidence and a convinced purpose against the Bengals. They'll need the same approach against the Patriots.
"They're a great team obviously," Foster said of his next opponent. "They have a great coach and a great quarterback and they have great role players on their team. I have a lot of respect for them - but we can play ball, too."
They certainly can. They wouldn't have finished 12-4, or have beaten the Bengals, if they couldn't. And for that, the coach and the quarterback deserve credit. But if they're to get any farther, they'd be wise to let Foster handle Houston's business.
Again, and again, and again.
Said Kubiak: "I've been around some good ones, and this guy, the bigger the game - the whole stadium knew we had to line up and run the ball and, boy, was he at this best there at the end. He's become a fine, fine player and it just seems like the bigger it gets, the better Arian gets."
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.