But if Houston comes out the same way it did in Foxborough back in December, that's going to be wishful thinking.
Despite what Arian Foster may believe, there are plenty of people—in New England and beyond—who think that the Texans are going to look like a different team than they were when the Patriots destroyed them 42-14 back on Dec. 10. The Texans, however, have to learn from the mistakes they made the last time out—and the Patriots have to prepare to face a team that is actually going to put up a fight on both sides of the ball.
Here's a look at what each team needs to do in order to move on to the AFC Championship.
Texans: Keep the Offense on the Field (and Ignore the Critics)
Already, the Texans have failed on one of these counts.
Perhaps too much is being made of the fact that Arian Foster changed his Twitter avatar to an excerpt from Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy's recent verbal annihilation of the Texans. But perhaps, then, Foster shouldn't have drawn so much attention to Shaughnessy's words in the first place.
Bulletin board material is fine—when it stays on the bulletin board, in the locker room, in private. Bulletin board material loses its magic when you put it out there for the whole world to see. It loses its magic when it becomes the focus, rather than the private motivator. It doesn't matter when newspaper columnists trash the opponent; they're not the ones playing the games. They don't really know what it's like to be on the field, in the line of fire.
But it does matter when the players—the most significant players—make it clear that they're listening because it means they're not focusing on the task at hand.
And in terms of focusing on the task at hand, the Texans have a lot to work on. The last time these two teams met about a month ago, the Patriots dominated every facet of the game, but most importantly, they made the Texans offense—which was supposed to be one of the best in the league—look completely inept. New England also forced the Texans into the kinds of silly mistakes that, at that point in time, were uncharacteristic of that team.
If Houston is going to win this game, it's going to have to play its best game of the season on both sides of the ball. It is going to have to be nearly perfect. It is going to have to find a way to score and victimize a secondary that is one of the weakest in the league.
The Texans have scored four touchdowns in their last four games. They're going to have to do better than that to keep up with the league's most prolific offense. And that's not a newspaper columnist getting a bit too excited; that's the cold, hard truth.
Patriots: Stuff the Running Game
The last time these two teams met, the Patriots took away Houston's most dangerous weapon: its running game. If Houston can't get its running game going, it doesn't have much else going for it—especially when it's coming up against a team that puts up a league-leading 34.8 points per game.
In particular, Arian Foster is Houston's most ferocious asset. When he is able to do what he does best, the Texans are in good shape. Look at what he did against Cincinnati last week in the Wild Card round: 140 rushing yards, 34 receiving yards, a touchdown—the Texans' only touchdown of the game.
If Foster can't find his way into the end zone, there aren't a lot of other people on this roster who can. And if the Patriots can find a way to score early and often—like they did back in December, when they put up four touchdowns before the Texans even managed to put a single point on the board—they will force Matt Schaub to throw the ball. They will take away Foster's opportunity to do what he does best. They will rob the Texans of their biggest—and, often, only—weapon.
When Foster visited Foxborough in December, he finished the game with 46 rushing yards, and the end result was no surprise and no coincidence.
The Patriots already have the mental edge in this one. They know what they can do to the Texans, and the Texans know it, too. Now, all they have to do is execute, just like they did last time.