A melancholic result on the first day of the NFL divisional round of the playoffs has offered the New England Patriots both added motivation to make the next round, as well as fair warning to those expecting an easy result in Foxboro. The Baltimore Ravens' overtime victory over the Denver Broncos shocked the NFL world and turned the AFC bracket of the playoffs on it's head.
Most entered this weekend expecting the Patriots and Broncos to sweep past their respective opposition. That would in turn set up a face-off between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, clearly the two best quarterbacks in the conference this season. That game was supposed to take place in Denver, but now that Joe Flacco's Baltimore Ravens lie waiting in the championship round, the conference final will take place in either Foxboro, in Boston, or Reliant Stadium, in Houston.
Not only are the Patriots playing for a spot in the playoffs, but they are now playing for the right to host the decider itself. Exactly like they did last season against the same opposition.
But what of today's opponents? If anything, the Patriots need to take heed of what the Ravens did to the Broncos and understand that they cannot look past the Houston Texans. The Patriots may have already convincingly beaten the Texans this year, but so had the Broncos against the Ravens. The Patriots may be close to 10 point favorites and be playing at home, but alas, so did the Denver Broncos.
At this stage of the season the Xs and Os take less precedence, the Jims and Joes become less defined, the coach's control is limited and the moments are magnified. Who expected Trindon Holliday to score two touchdowns on special teams? Who saw Rahim Moore misjudging an air-ball that he likely intercepts 98 times out of 100 and knocks down 99? Was Joe Flacco or Peyton Manning more likely to throw a game-sealing interception? Should Eric Decker have caught the first interception before it found Corey Graham, and then found the endzone? Was Demaryius Thomas scheduled to falter after shining so bright last season around this time and is John Fox that bad of a coach to make such amateur mistakes repeatedly?
Unpredictability is all that is predictable.
Sure, Arian Foster shouldn't have a big day on paper today against the Patriots, but the game is crucially played on a field. Foster is a super-star performer who will be more than motivated to relinquish the taste of his poor production in the team's last meeting. In fact, Foster won't be the only one desperate to erradicate that memory. The whole roster, coaching staff and fan-base should show up stronger to Foxboro today than they have to any other game all season long.
Pride is difficult to describe and even more difficult to recognize prior to it rears it's head. You can bet pride will be the main motivator for the Texans today. Being competitive and improving on their last display against the Patriots won't be enough. Only victory should be enough to satisfy the collective Houston Texans' ego. Last time they wore letterman jackets, reminiscent of high school glory days. This time they should wear the focus of grown men. The determination of competitors. The aspirations of champions.
Football isn't always about what appears on paper or tape. Football is sometimes just about who wants it more. If the New England Patriots are to advance to the AFC Championship game, they already have the talent on the field and the sidelines, but they will be pressed to match the Texans' desire and focus. If they can manage that, then this game may very well be a blowout victory.
However, no victory in the NFL, especially at this time of the year, is ever easy.