Here are five things to watch when the Texans (13-4, 1st AFC South) face the New England Patriots (12-4, 1st AFC East) in a Divisional Round playoff game at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro on Sunday. Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m. CT.
1. Feeding Foster: Texans running back Arian Foster has 425 rushing yards in three career postseason games, the most by any player in his first three playoff games in NFL history. Another big effort would go a long way in the Texans' second trip to New England turning out differently than the first.
The Texans are 8-0 this season when Foster rushes for 100 or more yards. That includes last Saturday in the Wild Card round, when Foster had 140 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries to help carry the Texans to a 19-13 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Foster has topped 100 rushing yards in each of his three playoff games, tied for the fourth-longest streak in history behind Terrell Davis (7) and Hall of Famers John Riggins (6) and Thurman Thomas (4).
Foster had just 46 rushing yards and a touchdown on 15 carries (3.1 average) at New England on Dec. 10, when the Texans fell behind 21-0 early in the second quarter and 28-0 by halftime before losing 42-14. Right tackle Derek Newton and tight end Garrett Graham are both playing on Sunday after sitting out in Week 14 with injuries, which should help the Texans' running game and offense at large.
Also working in the Texans' favor is that Foster has been virtually unstoppable in the playoffs, with an average of 141.7 rushing yards and 170.0 yards from scrimmage per game.
2. MegaWatt: Winning one-on-one pass-rush battles is crucial against Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who's notoriously lethal against the blitz. That's where presumptive 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt comes in.
Watt had four tackles, three quarterback hits and a forced fumble in the Texans' Dec. 10 loss at Gillette Stadium. It was one of only two games all season in which he did not register a sack or pass defensed, and he vowed this week to play better the second time around.
Watt had 20.5 sacks this season, most in the NFL and tied for the sixth-most in league history. His 16 passes defensed set an NFL record for a defensive lineman. He also had 81 tackles, 39 tackles for loss, 42 quarterback hits and four forced fumbles. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said this week that you don't contain Watt, you just try to stop him from ruining games.
Watt has 4.5 sacks in three career playoff games. He had three sacks in the Texans' Thanksgiving Day game at Detroit and three more sacks in the Texans' division-clinching victory against Indianapolis in Week 15. He said before the Texans played at Denver in Week 3 this season that he wanted to add Peyton Manning to his sack list, then sacked Manning 2.5 times. He sacked Aaron Rodgers twice on Sunday Night Football on Oct. 14. Brady is still missing from his sack list, and Watt is eager to change that on Sunday.
3. Spotlight on Schaub: Texans quarterback Matt Schaub is making his first-career road playoff start, eight days after beating the Bengals at Reliant Stadium in his playoff starting debut. With the way the Patriots put up points, especially at home, Schaub – like his teammates – will have to be on top of his game to lead the Texans to a victory in Foxboro.
Schaub was 19-of-32 for 232 yards and an interception in the Texans' loss at New England in December. He was efficient if not perfect against the Bengals, going 29-of-38 for 262 yards with an 83.4 passer rating and an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
Schaub, who has a 20-7 record (.741 winning percentage) since last season and went 6-2 on the road in 2012, has waited his entire nine-season career for moments like this. After three seasons as a backup in Atlanta, he has been with the Texans since 2007 but watched the team's inaugural playoff run from the sidelines last January with a broken foot. Schaub said numerous times this season that the thought of missing the playoffs last year is what drove him every day.
Now, Schaub has a huge chance to answer his critics if he can lead the Texans to the AFC Championship Game with a road playoff victory against one of the NFL's all-time great quarterbacks.
4. Defending Brady: Brady, who is going for his NFL-record 17th playoff victory, torched the Texans for 296 yards and four touchdowns in December. The three-time Super Bowl winner and two-time NFL MVP was 21-of-35 with no interceptions and a 125.4 passer rating.
The Texans sacked Brady just once in Week 14, with rookie linebacker Whitney Mercilus dropping him for a seven-yard loss in the third quarter. Mercilus was starting in place of Brooks Reed, who missed that game with a groin injury but is now healthy. Reed has 4.5 sacks in three career playoff games, tying Watt for the NFL postseason lead since 2011.
The Texans' secondary also is in better shape that the one that allowed touchdown passes of 63 and 37 yards to the Patriots in December. Pro Bowl cornerback Johnathan Joseph is 100 percent healthy; the last game at New England was his first back from a two-game absence because of a hamstring injury. Brandon Harris is more experienced; the last game at New England was his first as the Texans' primary nickel corner after Brice McCain was placed on injured reserve.
Brady now has the services of All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who missed the last meeting with a broken forearm. Gronkowski could be a matchup nightmare for the Texans' defense along with tight end Aaron Hernandez, more of a wide receiver-type who had two touchdown catches against the Texans in December.
Brady is 16-6 in the playoffs but 2-4 in his last six games, which includes back-to-back first-round exits in 2010 and 2011. In his 16 career playoff victories, he has been sacked 23 times (1.4 average). In his 6 career playoff losses, he has been sacked 16 times (2.7).
5. Cleaning it up: The Texans have talked all week about the importance of capitalizing on opportunities against the potent Patriots. They learned that lesson the hard way the last time around.
In that 42-14 loss, the Texans drove inside the New England 40-yard line three times in the first half and scored zero points. Schaub was picked off in the end zone on the first trip and threw incomplete passes on fourth down on the other two. The Texans had numerous drops on third and fourth down throughout the game.
On defense, the Texans failed to recover a fumble inside the five-yard line on the Patriots' first drive. Brady threw a touchdown pass on the very next play. The Texans extended two drives with third-down penalties, both times leading to touchdowns. The Texans also got unlucky on a fumble forced by Watt that bounced to Patriots receiver Brandon Lloyd in the end zone. They were 4-of-14 (29 percent) on third down on offense and allowed the Patriots to convert 6-of-12 (50 percent) of their third downs.
The Texans are 26-4 (.867) under Kubiak, including 6-0 this season, when they have a better third-down conversion rate than their opponents and win the turnover battle. They're 0-21 under Kubiak, including 0-2 this season, when they have a worse third-down conversion rate than their opponents and lose the turnover battle. They're 9-1 under Kubiak when they win on third downs, have a positive turnover ratio and commit fewer penalties than their opponents. They're 0-10 when they lose in those three areas.
In other words, when the Texans play clean, efficient football, they almost always win. They know they'll have to be especially sharp on Sunday against the Patriots, who led the NFL with 34.8 points per game in 2012 and showed in Week 14 that they can pile up points in a hurry – especially when given extra opportunities.