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. Today, 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 past 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 past four regular-season games, then edged the Cincinnati Bengals 19-13 last Saturday in the wild-card round.
New England nearly won it all last season, falling to the New York Giants 21-17 on a last-minute touchdown in the Super Bowl. 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.
The Patriots’ 28-point romp last month over the Texans 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.”
“Obviously, we didn’t play good last time we were up there,” Texans defensive end J.J. Watt 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.”