Divisional round: Houston Texans at New England Patriots

Wild Card Weekend is history, and now it's time for the top-seeded teams in the AFC and NFC to enter the playoff fray. The stakes couldn't be higher in the divisional round, with the right to play on Championship Sunday on the line. Let's take a closer look at all four games.



The setup

The Patriots have been in the same position for three consecutive seasons now -- opening the playoffs fresh off a bye, playing an opponent they blew out in December. In the 2010 postseason, the New York Jets turned the tables on New England. Last season, the Denver Broncos couldn't. Now here come the Texans, with a 42-14 Week 14 loss in Foxborough surely still fresh in their minds. Only on Sunday will we find out if the memory steels them or spooks them.

Player to watch

J.J. Watt, DE, Texans: Look at the Patriots' two Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants, their 2009 playoff defeat to the Baltimore Ravens and their 2010 loss to the Jets. The commonality: Tom Brady was knocked around. And affected. Watt knocked Brady down three times and forced a fumble in this season's Week 14 matchup, but he didn't get a sack. It's imperative for Houston that Watt get home a couple of times in this rematch.

Under pressure

Matt Schaub, QB, Texans: Anyone taking an objective look at things sees that Schaub really hasn't been the same quarterback since that fateful Dec. 10 night in Foxborough -- a 1:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his past five games is a testament to that. So this is a big moment for Schaub, who told me in August that the 2012 campaign was, indeed, a "Super Bowl-or-bust" season in Houston.

Matchup to watch

Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski vs. Texans S Glover Quin: Houston plays plenty of man coverage. One AFC pro scout said he expects Quin to be on Gronk, and fellow safety Danieal Manning to be on Aaron Hernandez -- and that "both should be mismatches for the Pats." The former matchup is the more important one, because of Gronk's red-zone prowess and Houston's need to force field goals and prevent touchdowns.

Did you know?

Since winning Super Bowl XXXIX, the Patriots have compiled a 7-6 playoff record, including two losses to the Giants in the title game. ... Since Week 14, Schaub has thrown just one touchdown pass, fewer than Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (three) and the Oakland Raiders' Terrelle Pryor (two) managed in that span, and the same number produced by the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez. ... Patriots coach Bill Belichick has as many career postseason wins (17) as Joe Gibbs, tied for third all-time; if New England reaches the Super Bowl, Belichick will tie Don Shula (19) for second; if the Pats win the title, he'll tie Tom Landry (20) for first.


If Houston can survive the Patriots' initial rush and slow the pace, this showdown between two teams with contrasting styles should be plenty competitive. In the end, the Patriots' red-zone defense will make the difference, with the Texans knocking on the door and falling just short at the wire.

New England Patriots 31, Houston Texans 26

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