Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub starts his first road playoff game, at the New England Patriots on Sunday, with the pressure on.
The Patriots, corning in from a bye week, loom as favorites in the American Football Conference divisional round clash as they look to go one better than last season when they lost to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.
New England crushed Houston 42-14 in week 14, a result which knocked the Texans off their perch and started a slump which also affected Schaub.
Although the Texans beat the Indianapolis Colts in week 15, they ended the regular season with successive losses and then were far from convincing in the 19-13 wild-card round win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Schaub has thrown just one touchdown in those four games and has made three interceptions and given up 10 sacks.
The intense atmosphere of a road game in the playoffs will test all of the 31-year-old’s character.
“I think he will be ready,” said Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson.
“He’s working his butt off like he’s done every week. I think just getting his first (playoff) win probably got a monkey off his back because that is something people talked about,” he said.
Schaub missed out on the playoffs last year due to injury but his opposite number Tom Brady has no shortage of post-season experience.
Brady has won 16 playoff games, a league record that he shares, for the moment, with Joe Montana.
He has also played in five Super Bowls, winning three of them, but he believes track records go out of the window when it comes to the playoffs.
“I played games early in my career when I had no experience and I did pretty well,” he told reporters. “I think it always comes down to who is executing the best and not so much the experience.”
The Texans must hope that their outstanding defensive end J.J. Watt can get to Brady and make life painfully uncomfortable.
“He’s a force on every play, no matter what play you have called, he can run it,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belch of Watt.
“He makes a lot of plays on the backside, disrupts the ball, strip-sacks, causes fumbles, batted balls. He’s an excellent pass rusher, quick and powerful.
“He is a tough match-up with good technique, well coached and he plays hard. He’s a factor on every play.”
TV: 4:30 p.m. ET, CBS.
ABOUT THE TEXANS (13-4): Arian Foster scored the game’s lone touchdown last week and compiled 174 total yards from scrimmage (140 rushing, 34 receiving). Foster’s dual threat was rendered nearly obsolete after the Patriots breezed to an early 21-0 lead. The electric runner was held to 46 yards on the ground. Houston would be wise to feed Foster the ball on Sunday; the Texans are 8-0 when he rushes for at least 100 yards.
ABOUT THE PATRIOTS (12-4): Brady isn’t shy about distributing the ball as he guides the league’s highest-scoring team. Wes Welker, who had 118 catches for 1,354 yards this season, was held to just three receptions in the teams’ earlier meeting. Rob Gronkowski, who was a spectator against the Texans earlier this season, led the Patriots with 11 touchdowns. Fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez, who had two scores versus Houston, and wideout Brandon Lloyd could be the wild cards in the high-octane attack.
EXTRA POINTS: New England led the NFL with a plus-24 turnover differential. Houston was second in the AFC with a plus-12 margin. … Houston stud WR Andre Johnson mustered nearly 100 yards per contest this season, and fell just five yards shy of that average on eight catches versus the Patriots in Week 14. … New England coach Bill Belichick needs one more postseason win to move past Joe Gibbs (17) for third place on the NFL’s all-time list. Tom Landry recorded 20 victories while Don Shula is second with 19.