GILLETTE STADIUM FOXBOROUGH, MASS.
SUNDAY 4:30 P.M. EST
What, just because the Texans traveled to Gillette Stadium on Dec. 10—remember the nifty lettermen's jackets they wore for the road trip?—and got drilled 42--14 by the Patriots, you think they have no shot at making it to New Orleans, the road to which goes through New England in this Sunday's rematch? Think again. If Mark Sanchez could lead the Jets past the Patriots in 2010 after getting waxed by 42 points in the regular season, then Matt Schaub can do it for Houston. Plus, it's been confirmed: The jackets are staying at home.
The Texans have a sudden spring in their step after dispatching the Bengals last Saturday 19--13. And, while taking nothing away from New England's general studliness, they believe that they're a different team than the one that no-showed in Foxborough last month.
How so? Well, the biggest reason for their late-season swoon, which saw the Texans lose three of their last four, was a suddenly punchless offense. Matt Schaub's stat line in those three losses: nine sacks, three INTs, zero TDs and a passer rating of 69.0. But he didn't just suddenly regress. Opposing defenses were taking advantage of the right side of Houston's offensive line. In a peculiar arrangement, rookies Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks split time at right guard, while second-year player Derek Newton and veteran Ryan Harris platooned at right tackle. And down the stretch they were less than the sum of their parts, struggling to protect Schaub and open holes for All-Pro Arian Foster, who rushed for 38 yards on Dec. 2 at Tennessee, 46 a week later against the Pats and 15 against the Vikings on Dec. 23.
That unorthodox quartet got something figured out in time for the Bengals. True, Foster got the bulk of his 140 rushing yards running left. But against one of the NFL's orneriest fronts, Brooks-Jones and Newton-Harris more than held their own. "They're young guys; they're growing up," says tight end Owen Daniels. "To play in a big game and perform the way they did—it gives them confidence."
Those offensive struggles had seemed to wear on the defense, which, when times are good—such as when Houston bolted to an 11--1 start—goes by the nickname Bulls on Parade. The virtuosity of end J.J. Watt had been overshadowing some disconcerting trends, such as the fact that the blitz-happy schemes of coordinator Wade Phillips often leaves cornerbacks vulnerable: The Texans yielded 54 completions of 20 or more yards this season. Only two playoff teams surrendered more. The good news for Houston: One of those teams was the Patriots, with 74.
Watt & Co. had no such breakdowns against the Bengals, yielding 198 total yards and no TDs. Granted, Cincinnati's Andy Dalton is no Tom Brady. But the Pats don't have a receiver as talented as Dalton's go-to, A.J. Green, who caught just five balls for 80 yards.
The Texans' D is most dangerous when Watt isn't the only guy getting to the quarterback. Inactive for most of December with a groin pull, outside linebacker Brooks Reed was back on Saturday and had a sack. Strongside linebacker Connor Barwin was buzzing around Dalton all day. "It felt," says Watt, "like Bulls on Parade again."