Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Patriots set to go on the attack
By now, Patriots players and coaches have stood at the podium for 13 press conferences, picked up the phone for nine conference calls, and opened the locker room for several hours of press availability since they last actually played a football game. That's a lot of talk without any action.
Though the most encouraging of all the words, from a Patriots perspective, waited until Wednesday.
"You don't win a war by digging a foxhole and sitting in it," Pats coach Bill Belichick spoke into the much-used microphone. "You've got to go out there and attack. You've got to go out there and make the plays you need to make to win."
And you've got to like the Patriots' chances of beating the Texans if New England's offense makes those words come to life on Sunday afternoon.
Forget that they've been installed as nine-point favorites by Las Vegas, are fresh off a 42-14 drubbing of this same opponent less than a month ago, spent last weekend resting and rehabilitating, and that it's Houston that enters the divisional round with nothing to lose. This is no time to get conservative.
Instead, it's just the opposite. The Patriots are at their best when they're attacking, and aggressive, and against a fragile Texans team that is so easily rattled that the drubbing they took at Foxborough in December left them with a doubt they've yet to shake.
They went on to finish the regular season by losing three of four, and the instability of their confidence was evident even in victory last week. Here was a 12-4 team, playing at home against a 10-6 team - the same team it had eliminated in the same round a year earlier.
Yet after securing the first down that clinched a closer-than-it-should've-been victory, cameras caught quarterback Matt Schaub reveal a relieved smile, and several players on the sideline happily taking the chance to exhale. In the celebration it was clear - especially in comparison to the way teams like the Ravens and Packers celebrated home wins on the same weekend - that even a 19-13, first-round triumph over the Bengals was something the Texans themselves weren't convinced was going to happen. So they can't possibly feel good about their chances at Gillette Stadium.
And thus the Patriots should pull no punches, and swing for the jugular. Early. And often.
"I think our biggest thing is to make sure we come out and start fast, regardless of what they're doing," said New England receiver Deion Branch. "We have a great gameplan and I know we're going to continue to progress as the week goes on. (Tuesday) we started with some great plays, went out and executed those plays and we're expecting the rest of the week to be the same.
"We want to make sure we start fast."
They should start fast, and they should stay fast. When the Patriots went up 21-0 in the initial meeting between these teams, they scored on each of their first three possessions - none of which lasted longer than four minutes. In a total span of 9:52, New England ran 21 plays, gained 13 first downs, and netted 208 yards between those three drives, employing the shotgun formation a dozen times while going without a huddle on a couple of occasions.
From there the offense started to stall a bit, but with their lead still intact midway through the third quarter, the Patriots padded it with a 63-yard bomb to Donte Stallworth. Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips loves to bring a fifth rusher, but the consequence of blitzing is that it leaves the secondary in mostly man coverage on the back end.
Brady tried to take advantage of that several times in the regular-season game, and while most of his throws fell incomplete, they were ultimately risks worth taking. And risks he should take again on Sunday.
"It's always about risk-reward in football," Brady said. "There are calculated risks and judgments you make as a player on every single play whether it's my position or whether you're a defensive tackle. That's what you train yourself to do over a long season.
"That comes through experience, that comes through playing a lot of games and certainly against better competition you don't have as long to make the decision. The better players you face, the less margin you have to make those split-second decisions."
And that's where the other factor comes in. The Patriots and Texans finished the 16-game campaign with the same record, and it'd be hard to make the case that New England has the better defense or the better running back.
But it's quarterback where the Patriots hold their greatest advantage over the Texans - so they should put the game in his hands. They should trust their best player, one of the best players in the history of the game. Let him utilize his weapons, let him dictate the game, let him loose.
Because for all the talking, and the scheming, and the plotting, come Sunday it'll be time to wage a battle from which only one team survives. "You make one mistake, you're gonna be watching next weekend," Brady reminded Wednesday.
So who better to handle the Patriots fate than the most flawless player the franchise has, or ever will, employ?
And let him attack.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.