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Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Patriots eye same result

January 12. 2013 9:29PM

WE BEGIN this week with a hypothetical: If the universities of Alabama and Notre Dame were to meet again some 34 days after playing the BCS Championship game, knowing what you know and what you've seen, would you predict a Fighting Irish victory?

Remember, that game was 21-0 in a hurry, and the lead ballooned to 42-7 before ultimately finishing at 42-14. It was never close, and hardly competitive.

Thus, the guess here is that barely a month later the people picking against the Crimson Tide would be few and far between - which brings us to another question, this one rooted in reality:

Knowing what you know and what you've seen, would you predict that the Patriots will lose to the Texans in today's AFC divisional playoff, just 34 days after doing to Houston exactly what Alabama did to those Golden Domers?

Your answer to both questions should be the same.

And it's okay, New England, if you don't see any possible way that anyone could answer "Yes."

Some might say it's a regional bias. Others may call it's homer-ism. Still more could say it's arrogance. But to say the Patriots should beat the Texans isn't brash or cocky or dismissive - because it's not based on feelings. It's based on facts.

They are facts that have been borne out over the course of 18 weeks now, and while they may have been emphatically confirmed on one particular night in December, the confidence Pats fans carry into today comes more from the breadth of the evidence than merely a single 28-point pummeling.

Putting it plainly, the Texans are a team that plays right into the Patriots' strengths, with New England equipped to both handle what Houston does well and hammer where Houston is weak.

It's true on offense, where although the Texans lean heavily on Arian Foster as a runner, as well as a threat through which they open up their play-action passing game, the fact of the matter is that the strength of the Patriots' defense is stopping the run.

New England was ninth overall, and allowed less than the league average of 121 rushing yards per game in all but three contests, including 100 to Houston in the regular-season clash.

It's true on defense, where the Texans' biggest liability is pass coverage - especially in games against top-tier quarterbacks. Versus Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford and Tom Brady (so arguably the game's three best and a guy who's thrown for 10,005 yards over the past two seasons), Houston has yielded an average of 338 yards along with 14 touchdowns and 0 interceptions.

Against everybody else, the Texans have allowed 183 yards per tilt, with 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. But the fact of the matter is that Brady and the league's fourth-ranked aerial attack are far from being lumped in among the "everybody else" riffraff.

It's true on special teams. Although the Texans set themselves up with the league's sixth-ranked kick return average, the fact of the matter is that the Patriots were the third-stingiest team in kickoff coverage.

And it's even true philosophically. The teams that have eliminated the Patriots in playoff games over the past five years have been teams that have been able to pressure Brady while bringing just the standard four rushers; Texans' defensive coordinator Wade Phillips counts heavily on his blitz. The Patriots yielded more 20-yard completions this season than any team; the oft-conservative Texans, ranked No. 19 in such hookups, don't take many shots down field.

It's simply a bad matchup for Houston, and proof of what a death sentence that can be in this league came just 34 days ago, when it all played out the way the evidence suggested it would. Foster was limited to 46 yards. Brady had a big night. Houston started only two drives beyond their own 20 before Ryan Mallett got in the game. The Texans sacked Brady once. And only twice did they hit on a mid-range or long throw that gained more than 16 yards.

Of course, this time could be different. The Patriots could let Houston dictate the tempo and turn Foster into more of a weapon. Brady could throw a couple of picks. Danieal Manning could spring a big return. J.J. Watt could wreak havoc as a one-man wrecking crew. Andre Johnson could free himself deep a couple times. The Patriots could play badly. The Patriots could lose.

That's all hypothetical, though.

So don't let what could happen today cloud your expectations of what the facts say should.

OVERRATED: Time of possession. One theory suggests the Texans' best strategy is to try and keep Brady off the field by bleeding the clock - but that doesn't necessarily work. In the six games the Patriots scored at least 37 points, their average time of possession was 28:33, and not once did they hold the ball for even 31 minutes. Conversely, in the six games the Pats failed to score 30 points, they averaged 32:20 of possession time, and only once held it less than 31:41.

UNDERRATED: Matt Schaub. The Texans' quarterback isn't elite, though he's far from a liability. In fact - among competition including Joe Flacco, Tim Tebow, Mark Sanchez, a hobbled Philip Rivers and David Garrard - he's almost inarguably the best QB the Pats have faced in an AFC playoff game since Manning in 2006. His passer rating was 90.7 this year, and is 93.3 for his six seasons in Houston.

KEEP AN EYE ON: The Texans' use of the blitz. Brady thrives on exploiting the single coverage that typically results from bringing an extra rusher, and if Phillips sticks to true to form, he'll see that frequently today. It could lead to some chances if the Pats can pick it up properly.

KEY MATCHUP: Owen Daniels vs. coverage. The Houston tight end is Schaub's second-favorite target, and in the wild-card round he caught nine of 11 balls tossed his way. The Patriots' linebackers and safeties struggle to cover tight ends, and if they can't handle Daniels he has the ability to prolong Texan possessions even if the Pats thwart the run on early downs.

STAT OF THE WEEK: With 22 for, and 29 against, Houston is the only team to reach the divisional round after allowing more passing touchdowns than it scored this season.

Dave D'Onofrio covers Boston sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is Twitter: @davedonofrio


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