First Down/Fourth Down: Tom Brady's up-tempo attack unnerves Houston
The New England Patriots' offense is tricky enough on a completely level playing field. When the Patriots are able to tip the scales in their favor with their schemes, the task for a defense becomes borderline impossible.
Tom Brady and Co. did just that on Sunday night during their 41-28 playoff win over Houston.
The Patriots' wild card: the well-placed use of rapid, no-huddle play calls that left the Texans struggling to even line up properly.
That tactic helped Shane Vereen find the end zone for New England's first touchdown -- after a 14-yard pass from Brady to Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots rushed to the line and snapped the ball as soon as the officials let them; Vereen easily scooted outside on Houston's defense for a score.
New England continued to break that quick-snap out periodically, including on two more touchdowns -- both Vereen's 8-yard TD reception in the second quarter and Brandon Lloyd's 5-yard touchdown grab in the third came in similar circumstances.
It did not take long for Brady to figure out he had an advantage here, and the Texans never adjusted.
More of the best and worst from New England's victory:
First Down: Shane Vereen.
New England managed to slip Vereen out in man-coverage against linebackers on numerous occasions, resulting in five completions for 83 yards and two touchdowns. He also chipped in 41 yards and a TD on the ground, making Woodhead's absence, at least, a non-factor.
Fourth Down: Matt Schaub.
Schaub heated up in the fourth quarter, firing a pair of touchdown passes (plus a two-point conversion) to pull the Texans as close as 38-28. He faltered in the first and third quarters, though, and that provided enough of a window for the Patriots to pull away.
The Texans' QB did not receive a lot of help early -- James Casey dropped a touchdown pass on Houston's second play of the game, and it took Schaub a while to settle into a groove after that.
He got rolling just before halftime, as the Texans struck for 10 unanswered, but stumbled again after that. The third-quarter interception he threw to New England's Rob Ninkovich was a killer ... and an awful, awful decision.
First Down: 2012 conference finalists (sorry, Giants).
Only the absence of last season's Super Bowl winners prevents us from a full repeat of the 2012 conference finals. The San Francisco 49ers again find themselves one win from a Super Bowl trip, though they'll have to head on the road this time around; and in the AFC, Baltimore will visit New England next weekend, in a rematch of last year's classic 23-20 Patriots win.
The host Patriots needed a shanked field goal from Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff to hang on for that win. Will next Sunday's return engagement provide the same drama, with rookie Justin Tucker having replaced Cundiff on the roster?
Fourth Down: Rob Gronkowski's health.
The Patriots spent Super Bowl week last year wondering if Rob Gronkowski would be able to suit up. They have a more definitive answer this playoff season.
A hobbled Gronkowski played through an ankle injury during Super Bowl XLVI, but he will not be able to tough it out in the AFC Championship game after reportedly breaking his forearm Sunday -- the second time this season he's suffered that injury.
Gronkowski missed several weeks during the regular season after his first forearm injury, which occurred while he was blocking for New England on an extra point. Sunday, he landed hard on that wrapped forearm and headed to the bench in obvious pain. The bad news on Gronkowski's diagnosis came down later.
First Down: Danieal Manning (as a kick returner).
Manning was among the Texans that Brady picked on through the air (we'll get there). He provided a huge boost, however, on special teams.
Manning took the game's opening kickoff back 94 yards to set the stage for a Shayne Graham field goal. His 35-yard runback in the second quarter (plus a 15-yard penalty on New England) led to an Arian Foster TD, and he capped the night with a 69-yarder in the fourth quarter.
Fourth Down: Houston's pass coverage.
OK, now for that pass defense ...
Brady finished with 344 yards and three touchdowns on the night. But the Texans' issues went beyond the numbers.
And the one that will keep the Texans' defensive backs up at night for a bit: How did Wes Welker continue to get so wide open? Wade Phillips said he would use Brandon Harris on Welker, but Phillips had to abandon that strategy as the Patriots' shifty receiver kept finding gaps.
But Harris was not alone in his Welker-related issues. Glover Quin and Kareem Jackson each was victimized by Welker at various times, including Jackson's costly (and somewhat shaky) holding penalty late. As mentioned above, too, the Texans' linebackers could not stay with Vereen either, and Aaron Hernandez also slipped free for six grabs.
The Texans failed to pressure Brady much, save for a couple of J.J. Watt plays, and that no doubt hurt the secondary's success rate. Still, with Gronkowski out, the Texans should have been able to stay tighter in coverage elsewhere.
First Down: Rob Ninkovich.
Hip injury? What hip injury?
When Ninkovich went down awkwardly in Week 17 against Miami, his status for the playoffs looked very much in doubt. But the linebacker did not even wind up on the Patriots' last injury report this week, and he looked every bit 100 percent healthy on Sunday.
He had four tackles, including a flying one where he tracked down Foster from being off a swing pass. He also delivered a dagger to Houston's comeback efforts with that INT of Schaub in the third quarter.
Fourth Down: The Texans' extra motivation.
Foster was none too pleased earlier in the week, when Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy ripped the Texans as frauds and said that they played scared against New England. Houston's running back copied part of Shaughnessy's column and made it his Twitter avatar for the week. But bulletin-board material and a little emotion only get you so far in football. Eventually, even for teams riled up by playing at home, the game comes down to execution and performance. Houston did little to show it was ready for prime time Sunday.