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 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.
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.