The bad news is they have to head back to Foxborough to face the New England Patriots just four weeks after being handed a 42-14 beating. That game sent the winner on a run for the AFC's No. 2 seed, and the loser spiraling out of the top seed in the conference on it's way to a 1-3 finish.
With the lopsided result, combined with the recent performance of the two teams, the Patriots have already been written into the AFC Championship Game in some circles, but they still have to get the job done against a Texans team that started the season 11-1.
Here's what New England can learn from its big win earlier this season.
Texans Offense Is Bread-and-Butter
The Texans are good at what they do, and not much else.
This applies to both their offense and their defense, but for the offense specifically, it plays right into New England's hands.
What they do, they do a lot, and almost everything the Texans do is predicated off the running game.
That does not bode well for them against the Patriots' ninth-ranked run defense. The Texans did not have a great deal of success against New England's front in the previous contest, notching just 3.7 YPA rushing.
Greg Bedard of The Boston Globe noted of the matchup:
Further going against the Texans is they are not a gameplan offense like the Patriots. Houston does what it does—inside and outside zone runs and playaction passes—against every opponent. If the Texans sense any weakness in the Patriots, it’s not like they can design an attack to take advantage. Against the Texans, if you can disrupt what they like to do, they can’t alter and move the ball. ...Take away the threat of playaction, and Schaub is below average and his line isn’t as elite as it normally is.
New England can expect to see much of the same offense it was successful against four weeks ago.
The middle of the field will be a battle ground the Patriots must win. In the previous meeting, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub went eight-of-10 for 90 yards over the middle, and he did it without tight end Graham Garrett.
Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston pointed out that the Patriots were successful in their base defense last time around, and that the return of Garrett might lead to the Patriots sticking to their base defense again this time around:
The Patriots were in their base defense on 47 of 70 snaps on Dec. 10, a result of the Texans playing mostly with multiple tight ends. That is likely to be the case again next Sunday, as tight end Garrett Graham, who didn't play Dec. 10 because of a concussion, is healthy again to give the Texans three options at the position (Graham, Owen Daniels and James Casey). That means it could be a Brandon Spikes-type game for the Patriots, as the hard-hitting middle linebacker sparks the base D.
The Patriots struggled defending the middle of the field this season, ranking 29th in Football Outsiders' DVOA at covering tight ends.
If the Patriots want to prevail, they'll have to stop the Texans from doing what they do best: running the ball and attacking the middle of the field.
Attack the Secondary
In the mental game of football, coaches can get ahead of themselves and overcompensate for an opponent's familiarity. It's the old "we think they know, what we know, what we think that they know" complex, or something like that.
The point is, the Patriots need to do what they are good at, and what worked for them in the last meeting. Make the Texans prove they can stop it.
The Green Bay Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers laid out the blueprint for beating the Texans in Week 6. Rodgers went off for 338 yards and six in that game, largely by testing the Texans on vertical throws that attacked the Texans cornerbacks.
"It’s mostly all man coverage, really," said Belichick before the previous meeting (via Patriots.com). "In the end, even the zones are matched so, yes, they’re very disruptive up front. A little bit of secondary pressure, but not a lot. It’s more linebacker pressure and man coverage. That’s what they do."
The corners are often left in man coverage, despite being the Achilles heel of the defense. They play aggressive on the back end, and it can hurt them at times.
Such was the case on the 37-yard touchdown bomb to Brandon Lloyd in the first quarter. The safeties bit hard on the play-action fake.
That left Jonathan Joseph with no safety help on Lloyd, who streaked right behind the secondary where Brady found him wide open for one of the easiest touchdown passes of Brady's career.
Quick passes have long been the bread-and-butter for the Patriots offense, and those will certainly have a heavy role in the game plan in terms of "blitz beaters," but long throws through the air have proven successful.
Against Houston, Brady went 3-of-7 and threw two touchdown passes on attempts that traveled 20 yards or deeper through the air. Playoff football is all about which team makes the most key plays; if the Patriots can hit on a shot play or two, as they did in the previous meeting, it will greatly improve their chances of advancing.
Protecting Tom Brady Vital to Success
The Patriots were moving the ball at will on their first three drives, which all ended in touchdowns. It was when the Texans—namely J.J. Watt—finally started to get some pressure on Brady that the Patriots stalled out, going three-and-out on three consecutive drives and punting four times before scoring again.
They do a good job of running games with a four-man line. They also mix in games with their fifth rusher so your left guard, your left tackle, your center, really anybody can end up on anybody because of the multiple games that they run in passing situations. You can say, ‘OK, we’re going to help him here,’ but after the ball is snapped, he might not even be there. There is plenty of that. And [Antonio] Smith is active in there and [Connor] Barwin and [Whitney] Mercilus now or Brooks Reed.
The Patriots saw a few of these when they met the Texans the last time around.
On this particular play, J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith loop around each other, in an attempt to create confusion on the offensive front.
The Texans sent six men on the initial rush, with a seventh defender coming on a delayed rush. They once again left the secondary in man coverage, with only one safety deep.
Brady is at his best when he has enough time to survey the defense, find the most favorable matchup and get the ball out. The offensive line allowed him enough time to find Lloyd breaking for the sideline with Joseph turned around in coverage.
The Texans are one of the blitz-happiest teams in the NFL. To get an idea of just how much, though, I asked ProFootballFocus.com for the official numbers.
@erikfrenz 48.3%. NFL average = 31.5%— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 7, 2013
It's clear, then, that the Patriots will have to come ready to beat the blitz. Brady was highly productive when the Texans sent extra defenders last time.
Tight end Aaron Hernandez was the beneficiary on the stat sheet, with eight receptions and two touchdowns on the night. His athleticism proved to be a mismatch for the Texans linebackers, but their blitzes left parts of the middle of the field wide open, and the Patriots took advantage.
Of course, that wouldn't have been possible without protection, and Brady was only pressured on 10 of his 37 drop-backs that night.
Whenever the Patriots lose in the playoffs, it's usually a result of their offensive line not getting the job done against the opponent's defensive front, which leads to mistakes and misfires from Brady. The Patriots have been more balanced this year than in year's past—and that will lend a hand in slowing down Houston's pass rush—but a failure to protect Brady would likely lead to a failure to advance to the AFC Championship Game.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.