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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Patriots champing at bit for rematch with Texans

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The talk is over, the hype is over, and the New England Patriots, after two weeks, are itching to begin their playoff run.

“Yeah, it feels great every year,” Patriots offensive lineman Logan Mankins said. “This is what you play for. These are the games we want to be in and it’s always easy to go to practice when you’re preparing for a game like this. It makes it nice. You want to get better, you want to prepare and do your best in these games.” ...

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The talk is over, the hype is over, and the New England Patriots, after two weeks, are itching to begin their playoff run.

“Yeah, it feels great every year,” Patriots offensive lineman Logan Mankins said. “This is what you play for. These are the games we want to be in and it’s always easy to go to practice when you’re preparing for a game like this. It makes it nice. You want to get better, you want to prepare and do your best in these games.”

They know that the expectations are nothing but their best in Sunday’s 4:30 p.m. AFC Division Round playoff game versus the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. The only thing that hampers the excitement leading up to this is the fact the Patriots smoked the Texans 42-14 here just over a month ago, perhaps reducing Houston’s worth despite a 12-4 record in the eyes of many.

“Believe it or not, guys don’t worry about it,” Houston coach Gary Kubiak said. “That game is gone. It seems like it was a couple years ago, not a month ago. We understand. We own it. We did not play good. We understand all those things, but I think players let things go quick. I know coaches let things go quick.

“Anything can happen on any given day in this business and we’re trying to be at our best (on Sunday).”

To be at their best, the Texans will need more than 46 yards rushing (vs. Patriots last month) from 1,400-yard rusher Arian Foster, and they’ll need quarterback Matt Schaub to play a turnover-free game and connect often with leading wide receiver Andre Johnson, who had 112 catches for an AFC-leading 1,598 yards.

The Patriots say they won’t take anything for granted.

“I guess there could be some risk. But our coaches, Bill has so much experience of being through pretty much every situation, that he’s not going to let us take them for (granted),” said Mankins of head coach Bill Belichick and his coaching staff. “They’re a good team, we know that, we’ve seen what they’ve done all year. We got the better of them the first game, but we know we’re going to
have to play very well to win this game.”

The Texans, Kubiak said, will come into this game with a confident frame of mind, knowing that it’s loser go home.

“You’ve got to get your team playing fast, cutting it loose, playing with confidence,” he said. “Like I said, you got to be at your best on one given day. We know what our challenge is.

“I feel good coming out of the game last week. I think we took a step forward from where we had been the last month. Now we know we’ve got to take another big one. It’s a great challenge. That’s what the business is about. That’s why we all do what we do.”

Thus the temperature at Gillette will be rising along with the pressure.

“Oh it’s definitely heightened,” said Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty, who had a key interception in the first game. “When you talk about win or go home, guys have more energy. I think the sense of urgency is there. Guys are hyped, guys are ready to go. There really won’t be any quarters or plays guys take off because you just understand, it’s now or never.”

Which is why it would behoove the Patriots to get off to a fast start, similar to what they did in the first meeting. The Texans, with Foster running the ball, like to control the clock. But in the first meeting, the Patriots won the time of possession battle as well, 30:49 to 29:11.

“It’s very important,” said Patriots veteran wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, who will be playing in his first career playoff game. “(Belichick) has talked about us getting off to a fast start a lot this year and how it sets the tempo for the game and gets us in a good rhythm and just keeps the positive plays rolling.

“So it’s very important to start off the game in a positive fashion, because the Texans are a team that can really take advantage of a game early and they can maintain the advantage with the way that their offense is able to stay on the field and the way their defense is able to put pressure on the offense.”

One thing that may help the Patriots turn up the heat is the presence of both tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Hernandez has been bothered by ankle woes all year, while Gronkowski has played one game in coming back from a broken left forearm. The Texans didn’t see Gronkowski the first time, and he’s a tough matchup to begin with.

But, as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who can become the NFL’s all-time QB playoff wins leader, said: “It’s all about our execution.”

Conversely, the Patriots also expect more pressure from Houston’s defensive front.

“Well, it’s going to be really tough,” Mankins said. “You probably have the best D-lineman in the league in J.J. Watt and then you’ve got Antonio Smith, another very good defensive lineman. ... You see the problems they give teams every week.”

They didn’t give the Patriots many problems the last time.

Whether they do or not Sunday could determine the playoff future of both teams.