There will be a heavyweight battle pitting Patriots quarterback Tom Brady against the Houston Texans aggressive defense, but a battle on the other side of the ball will have just as much of an impact on the outcome.
Say what you will about the Patriots defense, but one thing they do very well is shut down what an opponent does best. For the Texans, that's running the football with Arian Foster.
If the Patriots can shut down Foster, they severely limit what Houston can do offensively because the running game is such a big part of their offense.
The Patriots struggled to start, giving up a 12-yard run that was wiped away by an illegal formation penalty, followed by a 15-yard run on the very next play. They settled down against the run after the two big gains to start the game, and were able to hold Foster to 15 carries for 46 yards (3.1 YPA) and one touchdown, one of his worst performances of the season.
Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said that shutting down the run is objective No. 1 at a press conference on Tuesday (via Patriots.com):
First, it starts with their running game. It starts with Foster—the more touches that he gets, in the passing game or on the ground, the better that team is. ...Any team that runs the ball the way they run the ball and has the play-action and the bootlegs and all the stuff that comes after that, it’s a big challenge for us. But we’ve faced it, we’ve seen it a bunch of times, so we kind of know how we want to play this game. If we play it the way that we need to play it, we’ll be OK.
So much of the Texans offense is predicated off the run, and they are not a highly adaptable offense that could exploit weaknesses in the Patriots defense.
They are bread and butter, and not much else. Take away the run, and the rest falls into place.
Both of these units are heavyweights in the running game. Teams have not tried running very much against New England's front, and haven't been very successful when they have tried. The Texans have been relatively successful, though not much better than the league average on a per-carry basis.
As of late, the Texans have struggled running the ball, with just 3.9 YPA over their past three games. The Patriots are not their usual selves against the run recently, either, yielding 4.2 YPA over their past three games.
That being said, strength will meet strength in this showdown, and the Patriots will have to come ready. The Texans are very good at what they do—a lot of outside and inside zone runs.
Those runs involve a lot of great blocks from their offensive linemen.
Wilfork commented on what makes cut blocks so difficult to defend.
Their zone running scheme, stretch runs [and they] mix in a couple scheme runs. But playing cut blocks is always a big challenge when you’re facing a team like this because it seems like—I don’t care if you’re getting cut on the front side or the back side, that running back sees it and he hits it right off that cut block. So up front it’s going to be very important for us to try to stay on our feet and make sure that we are playing our blocks pretty good.
The Patriots got a good dose of those to start the previous game, with two runs that picked up good yardage right out of the gate.
Following a penalty on their first offensive play, the Texans came out in their 12 personnel grouping on 1st-and-15 with one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers. The Patriots responded with their base 4-3 defense.
The Texans called an outside zone run off left tackle, meaning that Foster ran to his left until he saw the opening on that side.
The opening may not have been there without one of those patented cut blocks from Texans right guard Ben Jones, who teamed up with center Chris Myers and got Wilfork at the legs to bring him to the ground.
They were not as fortunate on the next play, though.
The Texans wanted to run another outside zone, but Wilfork got a great push up the middle against Myers and brought him down in the backfield.
Foster may have gained quite a few yards if Wilfork hadn't disrupted the play in the backfield for a one-yard loss.
Wilfork was a dominant presence the last time around, and while a large part of their success will be based on how much push he gets up front. That being said, it's also up to defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich to set the edge and not get the floor swept out from under them.
In the last meeting, Ninkovich earned a very respectable 1.9 grade against the run from ProFootballFocus.com, but Jones graded out poorly at -1.6.
It will take a team effort to shut down the run, but not just from the defense, either.
New England was helped in shutting down the run by getting out to a 21-point lead in the first quarter. That effectively took the Texans out of their comfort zone. That being said, it would be hard to dispute that contest as their best defensive performance of the year. It was one of the few times in recent memory we've seen them play solid defense without generating multiple turnovers.
What makes shutting down the run so vital against the Texans is the fact that the majority of their offense is predicated off the run. Texans quarterback Matt Schaub ranks sixth in play-action pass percentage, faking to the running back on 25.7 percent of his drop-backs (via ProFootballFocus.com).
Taking away the run has a ripple effect that spreads to the passing game, and could make the Texans offense malfunction on multiple levels.
Although we credit the offense for building the lead, the defense deserves credit for getting the stops necessary to build that lead. They did a fine job against the run four weeks ago, and will most likely do so again in the playoffs.
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.