New England quarterback Tom Brady (12) performs field drills with teammates quarterback Ryan Mallett (15, and wide receiver Deion Branch, 84), during a practice in Foxborough, Mass.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Vince Wilfork was a champion as a rookie with the New England Patriots. So, he wondered, how hard could it be to win the Super Bowl every year?
After the past seven seasons without another title, he has his answer.
“Winning one early in my career, you kind of get the sense that it happens like this all the time, but it doesn’t,” the defensive tackle said. “It’s very, very hard to win at this level, at any level.”
His college teammate at Miami, Andre Johnson, never reached the playoffs in his first eight seasons with the Houston Texans. He finally got there last year. On Sunday, he faces Wilfork and the Patriots in a divisional-round game.
“It means a lot,” the wide receiver said. “It makes you appreciate all the tough times you went through to get to this point.”
The Patriots (12-4) have a rich tradition of three titles in four years before the current championship drought. They won nine of their last 10 games, are coming off a bye and are heavily favored, having routed Houston 42-14 on Dec. 10.
The Texans (13-4) have a poor history with just two postseason wins in 11 years of existence. They lost three of their last four regular-season games, then edged the Cincinnati Bengals 19-13 last Saturday in the wild-card round.
Those differences aside, both teams are hungry to keep the season going — all the way to a Super Bowl triumph.
New England nearly won it last season, falling to the New York Giants 21-17 on a last-minute touchdown. That was a huge disappointment for special teams captain Matthew Slater, a rookie in 2008 who wasn’t part of any of the championships. He didn’t even win a playoff game in his first three seasons.
“To be able to come as close as we did last year and have past failures in my previous seasons here, it just drives you and motivates you more,” he said. “We don’t feel like we’ve accomplished anything. We don’t feel like we’ve arrived at all because it’s all for naught unless you do something in the postseason. We’re very driven, very motivated, very focused.”
Focused on the future.
The past — that 28-point romp last month — has no bearing on the rematch, coaches and players from both teams insist.
“I think it’s a bunch of garbage,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “The game will have its own elements and it will write its own story.”
Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is tired of all the talk about that beating his team took.
“Obviously, we didn’t play good last time we were up there,” he said. “I don’t think we need to keep rehashing it. I think we just need to play our style of football.”
That style depends on Arian Foster running the ball. Do that well and the Texans can maintain possession and keep Tom Brady and the Patriots’ league-best offense on the sideline.
It worked last Saturday against much weaker competition. The Texans outgained the Bengals 420 yards to 198 and held the ball for 38:49 compared to 21:11 for Cincinnati. Foster ran 32 times and caught eight passes, a total of 40 plays. The Bengals had just 48 plays all game.
And Foster’s 140 yards rushing made him the only player with at least 100 in each of first three playoff games.
“There’s nothing he can’t do,” Texans offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said. “He catches the ball extremely well. He blocks very well. The little things, as far as seeing somebody, it’s almost like a chess move. He knows a couple moves ahead when a guy is coming so he doesn’t take a solid shot.”
The weak link could be quarterback Matt Schaub. He threw for more than 4,000 yards for the third time in four years, but in his last five games has just one touchdown pass and four interceptions. His passer rating against the Patriots of 68.8 was his third lowest of the season.
But now that he’s gotten past the first postseason game of his career, he expects a much better performance.
“We go up with a lot of confidence,” Schaub said. “If you want to move on, you’ve got to bring a sense of nastiness and attitude with you to go out and dominate your opponent on every play.”
That’s impossible, of course, especially against the Patriots’ offense.
Brady’s next postseason win will be his 17th, breaking a tie with Joe Montana for the most by any quarterback. He’ll get a boost from having tight ends Rob Gronkowski, sidelined for the first game against Houston, and Aaron Hernandez on the field together for only the sixth time this season after both dealt with injuries.
“It’s all about our execution,” Brady said. “They were out there a lot together last year and when we executed well it looked good, and when we didn’t it looked bad.”
Another performance against Watt like the last one would help. The NFL sacks leader with 20 1-2, plus 16 passes defensed, had none of either in the previous meeting.
“I got quite a few hits on Brady, but, obviously, the ball was gone every time,” Watt said. “That’s why you get another shot, and this is the playoffs and I’m going to bring everything that I have.”
The Patriots plan to do the same. Only two of their players, Brady and Wilfork, remain from the last Super Bowl-winning team in the 2004 season.
“We all play this game for one goal: to be champions,” Wilfork said. “You can’t take a situation and overlook it. And the situation for us is the Houston Texans. We can’t overlook this team. We have to go in and play good football. If we play well, we’ll be OK, but if we don’t, we’ll be in trouble.”
And then that one-sided win just a month ago really would mean nothing.
“People have their own opinions about it, but we know what kind of football team we are,” Johnson said. “We know if we go out and play well, we’re capable of beating anybody.”
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By CHARLES ODUM
The AssociaTed Press
ATLANTA — It’s 2010 all over again for the Atlanta Falcons.
Just like two seasons back, the Falcons finished 13-3 in the regular season. Once again, they have the top seed and home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
This time, they vow they’re mature enough to make the most of the opportunity.
The Falcons will try to end their recent trend of first-game postseason exits Sunday when they play the streaking Seattle Seahawks in the divisional playoffs. The Falcons had a first-round bye last week while rookie quarterback Russell Wilson led Seattle to a 24-14 comeback win at the Washington Redskins.
The Seahawks (12-5) bring a six-game winning streak to Atlanta.
Atlanta had never managed back-to-back winning seasons before a new era began in 2008 with general manager Thomas Dimitroff, coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan. The Falcons have five straight winning records and four playoff seasons, including three straight.
So far, all the regular-season success has led only to postseason disappointment. Smith and Ryan are 0-3 in the postseason, including a home loss to Green Bay in 2010 and an ugly 24-2 loss at the Giants last year.
The Falcons say they’ve learned from the playoff defeats and are better prepared this year.
“We’ve been here in the past before and now we’re more mature,” said safety Thomas DeCoud. “We know what we can and cannot do.
“It’s a sense of pride, more of an internal sense of pressure rather than anything external. As professional athletes we all want to go out there and perform well and get this monkey off our backs, so to speak.”
The Falcons can only marvel at Wilson’s ability to pull off a road win in his first playoff game. Wilson completed 15 of 26 passes for 187 yards and ran for 67 yards in last week’s win. Seattle overcame a 14-0 deficit to beat the Redskins.
Wilson, a third-round pick, has outlasted Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III in the playoffs.
“My expectations are very high,” Wilson said. “That’s allowed me to be where I am today. If I listen to everybody who said I can’t do it, there’s no way I could play in the National Football League, there’s no way I’d be starting in the National Football League. There’s no way I’d be here today.”
Center Todd McClure, in his 13th season, is the only holdover from the last Atlanta team to win a playoff game, in 2004.
“I feel like this is the best team I’ve been on since I’ve been here,” McClure said. “I’m not just saying that. I feel like this is the best opportunity I’ve had and we’ve had to make a run. We have to go out on Sunday and execute. We have to play our best football to win this game and I think we’re ready for it.”
The 35-year-old McClure says he thinks he’ll return for another season. Tight end Tony Gonzalez, who is 36, says he’s 95 percent certain he will retire even though he made his 13th Pro Bowl. Among other key veterans on the team are cornerback Asante Samuel and running back Michael Turner.
Looking back at 2010 and 2011, McClure says the Falcons are fortunate to have this opportunity to make up for past postseason failures. He says there is no assurance there will be another chance.
“These opportunities in the playoffs, they don’t happen every year,” McClure said. “Some teams seem like they’re in just about every year but you look over guys’ careers and it’s hard to get in the playoffs. Even if I do play another year it’s not a certainty I’ll be back in this situation. It’s like that for everybody in this locker room. We want to take advantage of where we’re at.”
The Falcons’ offense has evolved in the five seasons under Smith, whose early teams featured Turner’s runs. First-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter made this a pass-first offense with more screens and more big plays for Gonzalez and receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones.
Ryan set franchise marks with 4,719 yards passing and 32 touchdowns while completing 68.6 percent of his passes for another record.
With Ryan orchestrating the no-huddle attack, the Falcons have the ability for quick-strike big plays. It’s a contrast to the Seahawks, who prefer to control the ball with powerful running back Marshawn Lynch, who set a career high and ranked third in NFL with 1,590 yards rushing.
“If we can hold the football, it’s frustrating to an offense who wants to go fast,” said Seattle coach Pete Carroll. “We’re not trying to sit on the clock at all, but we’re certainly committed to the running game. There is nothing better that we can do than to be making first downs and handling the football to keep them from being on the field. The best thing we could do is to keep them on the sideline, and the best way we can do that is to convert, and running gives us a great chance.”
The Seahawks, only 3-5 on the road in the regular season, must make their second cross-country trip in as many weeks. According to STATS LLC, the only NFL West Coast team to win two games at East Coast sites in the same postseason was the 1989 Los Angeles Rams, who won at Philadelphia and the New York Giants.
Seattle lost sacks leader Chris Clemons to a knee injury last week. Rookie Bruce Irvin will start for Clemons, who had 11 1-2 sacks, at defensive end.
Losing Clemons is big for a defense that allowed only 203 yards — 99 passing and 104 rushing — against the Redskins.
“I think it’s a matter of who can execute their system better than the other team at a higher level,” said Seattle tight end Zach Miller. “It’s going to come down to who is more on their game. We’re similar type teams in that we don’t turn the ball over. We don’t make many mistakes.”
Wilson said the playoffs are “time to do something special.”
“Obviously we’ve got a tough seed in front of us,” Wilson said. “We’re going to Atlanta. It’s going to be a hostile crowd. ... We just need to enjoy what it is and see what happens.”
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