FOXBORO -- The Patriots are expecting different. They're expecting better. They know the Texans will try things this Sunday in their Divisional Round playoff game that they didn't in Week 14 when the Patriots rolled on Monday night, 42-14.
"It's hard to say exactly what they'll do," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said Thursday. "I'm sure they'll watch the game we had before and they'll feel differently about some things they did . . . I think the biggest thing we have to know as a defense is they're gonna play better, they're gonna be ready to go. It's the playoffs. We know they're preparing for it right now and they'll be ready."
Whatever the Texans do, running back Arian Foster figures to be very involved. He amassed over 1600 total yards and racked up 17 touchdowns during the regular season. He had 140 yards and a touchdown on 32 attempts last week in Houston's Wild Card win over the Bengals. He also caught eight balls for 34 yards.
Though it will be up to New England's front seven to keep Foster from finding lanes in Houston's signature stretch running plays, the Patriots secondary will also have to chip in and help make sure he doesn't break off huge chunks of yardage at a time.
It did a solid job of that in Week 14, holding Foster to just 46 yards rushing and a garbage-time touchdown in 15 attempts.
"He's able to break tackles. He's able to make guys miss," McCourty said of Foster. "That's when we'll be needed, when a run breaks out or something like that and we have to show up as safeties and corners, we have to do a good job of getting him to the ground. We always talk a lot about secondary members, we help each other out a lot if we just get to the ball. If we can get to the ball and gang tackle running backs when they get out into the open field, it makes it a lot easier to get those guys on the ground."
The Patriots secondary will be careful not to be too aggressive in stopping Houston's best offensive player, though. If defensive backs bite hard when they see quarterback Matt Schaub move to hand off to Foster, they could be opening themselves up to be gashed by play-action passes.
"If you watch them throughout the year, they've made big plays on that against almost every team they play," McCourty noted. "We have to realize, when we're needed in the run game, we have to show up and be there. But as players in the secondary, the pass is important to us. We gotta be able to play the pass, and those guys up front gotta rely on us to do our job when we're up there handling the run."
Schaub struggled toward the end of the regular season when Houston lost three of its last four games. In those losses, he threw three interceptions and completed just one touchdown. He doesn't have the strongest throwing arm among quarterbacks New England has faced this season, and he's not the most accurate, but he has a wide receiver in Andre Johnson who is one of the best in the NFL and can make big plays even without the help of play-action.
Johnson was second in the league in receiving yards this season with 1598, and was fourth in receptions with 112. He caught eight passes for 95 yards in Week 14.
"I think we'll just have to do a good job of staying deep when they try to throw shots down the field, and then just compete with him," McCourty said. "He's one of the best receivers in this game, and it's gonna be tough, but I think Alfonzo Dennard and myself and Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington and the guys that are gonna be on him, we just gotta do a good job of going out there and trying to make it tough on him."
On Sunday, the Texans may try a different game plan than the one they used in Week 14, but keeping Johnson in check, helping to stop Foster, and guarding against big play-action completions will all be part of a crucial balancing act for the Patriots secondary regardless of the offensive schemes they see when Houston comes to Gillette Stadium.