The last time the Houston Texans went to Gillette Stadium they had the NFL's best record. They left with a 42-14 pounding from the New England Patriots.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick insists the rematch of that December game on Sunday in the NFL playoff divisional round will be different. Not too much different, of course, because he fully expects his Patriots to win and reach the AFC title match.
"The plays will match up differently and I'm sure there will be new plays that weren't in that game," Belichick said. "I don't think you can overanalyze that game. It's a big picture thing."
The big picture is that the AFC East champion Patriots come off their playoff bye as 9 1/2-point favorites against the AFC South winners. Houston beat Cincinnati 19-13 in the wild-card round last Saturday, not looking particularly overwhelming.
It's pretty simple what the Texans must do at the outset: Stay close. They fell behind so quickly on Dec. 10 that the outcome was decided after one quarter.
"We know that our effort and how we performed last time wouldn't give us a chance against anybody on the road," coach Gary Kubiak said. "It's about right now refocusing on all the things we have to do to go down there and have a chance to be successful."
A win for the Patriots would give Tom Brady his 17th in the playoffs and break a tie with Joe Montana for most in the postseason as a starting quarterback.
In the other AFC matchup, the Denver Broncos have a chance at home to send Ray Lewis into retirement on Saturday.
Lewis plans to end his 17-year career with the Baltimore Ravens when their season is over, and they extended it with a 24-9 win over Indianapolis last week. They face the NFL's hottest team.
The Broncos are coming off a bye and riding an 11-game winning streak that includes a 34-17 win at Baltimore on Dec. 16.
The Ravens weren't at full strength last month. Last Sunday marked the first time all season that they had defensive playmakers Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata on the field together.
"It means nothing that we beat them in the regular season. I know we beat them pretty good, but in the playoffs it's just a different game," Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley said.
The Green Bay Packers have no fear about going on the road in the postseason, as they head to the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday. A similar crew to this year's group won three away games two years ago, then beat Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.
The Packers have become healthier as the playoffs approached. They have a decent running game to go with that deep receiving corps Aaron Rodgers throws to.
But Green Bay has two significant questions:
- Can the spotty offensive line neutralize one of the NFL's most dangerous pass rushes, something it couldn't do in the season-opener it lost to San Francisco?
- Can a defense that has been gorged on the ground at times slow down the league's fourth-best rushing attack, led by Frank Gore?
The 49ers also have some uncertainties, notably how second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick will handle the playoff pressure for the first time. They do have a secondary that matches up well with Green Bay's receivers.
The Seattle Seahawks have become the fashionable choice in these playoffs as the outsider who could emulate the Super Bowl-winning New York Giants of last season, the Packers of the previous year, and so on.
Their hosts on Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons, meanwhile, are under considerable pressure as the NFC's top-seeded squad for the second time in three years. They've yet to win a playoff game under the current trio of quarterback Matt Ryan, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff - losers in all three playoff appearances going back to the 2008 season, the last two not even close.
There's also the feeling that no team fears going into the Georgia Dome, and with the Seahawks having erased their road woes in the last month or so, including last week's 24-14 win over the Redskins in Washington, they are a formidable foe.
Still, the Falcons have the big, physical and versatile receivers to deal with Seattle's big, physical and versatile secondary.
"We've been disappointed a few times," said center Todd McClure, who's been with the Falcons for 13 years. "I think we've got guys in this locker room who are hungry and ready to get over that hump."