This story is from BostonGlobe.com, the only place for complete digital access to the Globe.
Tom Brady’s ability to quickly recognize defenses, find mismatches, and consistently deliver razor-sharp passes is what separates him from all the others. Given the time, Brady will shred and demoralize defenses with surgical precision. He is extraordinarily confident, competitive, and clutch. The 13-year veteran may lack athleticism but he is a master at getting all of his teammates involved, and his ability to run the hurry-up offense is second to none. Few players are more respected in their huddle — as well as their opponents’ huddle. Houston’s Matt Schaub is solid and steady and is coming off his first playoff victory. Schaub thrives in the short-to-intermediate game. He is a streaky player and works best as a complementary piece; asking him to carry the offense for long stretches is a mistake.
Stevan Ridley has become one of the more consistent and reliable backs in the NFL, averaging 18 carries and nearly 80 yards per game. Ridley runs with great vision and energy. He hits holes hard and explodes onto the second level, leaning into linebackers and defensive backs. He is very enthusiastic and indefatigable. Shane Vereen shows flashes (but not enough) of quickness and power. Danny Woodhead is a football player, plain and simple. Woodhead has great instincts, quickness, and toughness. He changes directions and speeds fluidly and is a great blocker. Houston’s Arian Foster is a muscular back with good vision and patience. Foster has a quick first step, will break tackles, and shows impressive acceleration. Ben Tate (he’s aggressive) and Justin Forsett (he’s serviceable) likely won’t play much.
Wes Welker (quick feet, strong hands) has the uncanny ability to get open and is the ultimate safety net for Tom Brady. When they get into a groove (which is often), defenders can be seen shaking their heads in disbelief. Deion Branch is slippery and has Brady’s trust. Brandon Lloyd has good speed and great body control but not Brady’s trust. A healthy tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski (he’s big and powerful) and Aaron Hernandez (he’s quick and athletic) is almost unfair. The Texans’ Andre Johnson is a handful. He’s smart, strong, and swift. Johnson is fearless over the middle and can hug the sideline, too. He has the versatility to thrive in the short, medium, and deep games. Kevin Walter has good hands but he’s been beaten up a lot. Tough tight end Owen Daniels has good speed and strong hands.
The return to health of left guard Logan Mankins has been huge for New England. One of the league’s surliest players, Mankins is a real scrapper. He hits everything in sight and plays to the whistle on every snap. He won’t win every battle but it will sure seem that way. Center Ryan Wendell’s solid play has been the biggest surprise of the season. Right guard Dan Connolly is solid. Towering tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder can be dominant at times but will be caught flat-footed at others. Houston center Chris Myers is strong and smart. Rookie right guard Ben Jones is a strong and hard-working widebody. Left guard Wade Smith is a wily veteran who gets off the ball quickly. Left tackle Duane Brown delivers an impressive punch at the snap. Right guard Derek Newton has impressive speed and athleticism.
Texans DE J.J. Watt vs. Patriots RT Sebastian Vollmer and LT Nate Solder
Watt has been an absolute menace this season. A 6-foot-5-inch, 295-pound whirling dervish from Waukesha, Wis., Watt has a lethal combination of instincts, quickness, and power. He has really strong hands and upper-body strength and can whip defenders around like rag dolls. His explosiveness can catch blockers off guard and if he gets a hold of your quarterback, say a prayer and call for help. How dominant has Watt (20.5 sacks) been? “He’s made more big plays than probably anybody defensively this year in the league,’’ said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Solder is 6-8 (but he looks taller) and 320 pounds (but he looks lighter). He has decent quickness and agility and uses those tools to ward off rushers and protect Tom Brady’s blind side. He lacks power (comparatively speaking) and because his position is so important to the health of The Franchise, when he gets beaten, everybody notices. And you can be sure No. 12 won’t let him forget his boo-boos. Look for the tight ends to help Solder (and Vollmer) with some chip blocks.
TEXANS’KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Texas roadhouse: Running the ball is huge for Houston. When Arian Foster and his big ugly friends up front (no offense) set the tone and make hay, it opens everything up for this unit and prevents teams from blitzing Matt Schaub (left).Continued...