By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 05, 2013

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Remember, these guys were supposed to be the top seed.

It didn't take long for the Patriots to find out who their next playoff opponent will be. Many experts thought the Cincinnati Bengals might stroll into Reliant Stadium and snitch one from an ice cold and downtrodden Houston Texans team, the Texans instead survived a tough defensive battle and prevailed, 19-13 on Saturday in the first of four Wild Card playoff games. Other than not being able to stick the ball in the end zone with regularity and relying on four field goals by former Bengals kicker Shayne Graham, the Texans dominated the Bengals with a tough defense, a brilliant shutdown of A.J. Green, and not allowing the Bengals any offensive touchdowns.

The win by the Texans sends them to Gillette Stadium next week, whereas the winner of Sunday's Indianapolis-Baltimore game will head to Denver to play the Broncos. The Ravens will be favored at home against the team that used to call Baltimore home. It will basically come down to who will draw more inspiration, the Ravens over the impending retirement of Ray Lewis, or the Colts over the return of their cancer-stricken head coach, Chuck Pagano.

As for the Texans, they return to the site of the Monday night game which literally changed their season and almost scuttled their Super Bowl plans. They still have to play the Patriots on the road instead of at home, thanks to their failure to close the deal late in the season and nail down the top playoff seed. The 42-14 shellacking they suffered at the hands of the Patriots on December 10 will be prevalent on their minds, and Houston will be bent on coming at the Patriots full throttle when they meet next weekend in the Divisional Round.

But will it be good enough? Suffice it to say that the Patriots, who have had a week to rest up and heal up, have already begun to devise a way to stuff the Texans again. If Bill Belichick possibly predicted a Texans win and got a leg up on preparation, so much the better for the Patriots, though he will never admit to such a hunch.

The Patriots have had their share of playoff rematches in recent years. The last one, two years ago against the Jets, proved disastrous and could be a harbinger for next week. In an eerily similar scenario, the Patriots pasted the Jets 45-3 on Monday night, December 6, 2010. The Jets came back to Gillette Stadium a month later in the Divisional Round and upended the top seeded Patriots, 28-21. Now in 2012, here come the Texans a month after getting blasted up here on a Monday night. If Houston believes in déjà vu, they're in good shape.

Belichick will no doubt have this on his mind as he prepares his team for who should have been a higher seed than number three. He will gather his team in that lecture hall of theirs, and probably put up game tapes of both those aforementioned Jets games in 2010. He will make the players pay special attention to the January playoff rematch. The Patriots won big, but then the Jets won the one that really counted. Now, here we are again with the same exact scenario, with a much tougher opponent in the Texans.

The Patriots literally turned the Texans into a laughingstock in their meeting last month. The Patriots jumped out to a 21-0 first quarter lead and then put the game on cruise control the rest of the way. The Patriots found a way to neutralize J.J. Watt and found moving the ball on Houston to be easier overall because of that. Andre Johnson and Arian Foster were never huge factors in the game.

But can the Patriots dial it up for a second time against a powerful team that will be ready for them?

The Patriots at least have the talent that can pull off a second win. Tom Brady will have Rob Gronkowski back, and an outside game if they have to run away from Watt. While the pass defense is nothing like the days of Ty Law and Rodney Harrison, it is at least improved to the point where Matt Schaub won't be invincible like anyone named Manning.

What the game will come down to is how well the Patriots can execute with Houston expected to bring lots more than they did in December. The Patriots more or less caught Houston in December flying high and expecting to win easily, and were jolted back to earth. Based on how confident the Texans looked against the Bengals, the Texans will not take anyone lightly from here on in. Sometimes in years past, the Patriots have tended to bring their "C" game to the playoffs; the Patriots are only 2-3 in their last five playoff games. But if the Patriots do bring their "A" game, they should win.

If Houston is to win the game, they need to bring more physicality than the Patriots and to play a mistake-free game. The Bengals allowed only one touchdown to the Texans, and field goals won't get the job done up in Foxborough. If they are made to rely too much on Graham for their offense, they will have to literally punish Brady into mistakes to have any chance, and Brady has shown that he can be beaten (Ravens, 49ers, Giants, for example) if defenses can attack him and force him into hurried throws and interceptions.

It should be a slugfest next week at Gillette Stadium, with the winner likely heading to Denver for the AFC Championship. If Denver loses next week, the winner of this game hosts the AFC Championship. All week long, you'll hear about how the Patriots handled the Texans so well in December, and you'll see more of the same next weekend. Right now, the fact that the Texans squandered the top seed matters not at all. The Texans have enough talent to render that December meeting worthless.

But the Patriots will be at home, and perfectly capable of winning another one against the Texans and moving on to still another AFC Championship. Let the week of dissecting, analyzing and prognosticating begin.


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