FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The New England Patriots found a way to turn Arian Foster from punishing runner into powerless bystander.
All they did was charge to a 28-0 lead, make the Houston Texans throw and keep the ball away from one of the most dangerous rushers in the NFL.
A month ago, the Patriots scored touchdowns on their first three possessions and routed the Texans 42-14 as Foster gained just 46 yards on 15 carries.
Vince Wilfork, though, figures on a tougher challenge in Sunday’s rematch on the same field in a divisional playoff game.
“I expect to see the best,” the Patriots’ defensive tackle said Tuesday.
Something, perhaps, like Foster’s brilliant performance in Saturday’s 19-13 wild-card win over the Cincinnati Bengals — 140 yards on a season-high 32 carries, to go with eight catches for 34 yards and the game’s only offensive touchdown.
That made him the first NFL player to rush for at least 100 yards in each of his first three playoff games.
“Last week, you saw why this guy is one of the top offensive players in the game, not just a back, but a top offensive player in the game,” a rested Wilfork said after the team’s bye week. “The things that he can do with the ball in his hands, in the pass game and running it … and he’s a great blocker when they ask him to block. I mean he’s a special player and we understand that.”
If he gets a chance to show it. He didn’t on Dec. 10 at Gillette Stadium.
Foster rushed 12 times for 44 yards in the first half, which ended with the Patriots leading, 21-0. He had just three carries for 2 yards after that — and none after he scored on a 1-yard run with 6:12 left in the third quarter — as the Texans tried to preserve time by throwing the ball.
But New England (12-4) knew they would have to focus on that.
“Any time that you can get a team one-dimensional, that’s a big plus. Every team tries to do that,” Wilfork said. “It just bottles up a bunch of things … knowing when you can expect the pass, you can expect this and you can expect that.
“But when a team is on track and when they are running the ball good, and throwing the ball good, and the play action is good, and the special teams are good, it’s tough.”
The Texans (13-4) can be dangerous when they go to play-action, as well, faking a handoff and then throwing. The Patriots know they can’t fall for it and leave a receiver open while going after a runner who doesn’t have the ball.
They must be disciplined.
“Just fundamentals. Just read your keys and just pay attention,” linebacker Brandon Spikes said. “Everybody has a job and my job is to pay attention to the run.”
That means focus on Foster.
He was sixth in the NFL with 1,424 yards rushing and eighth in yards from scrimmage with 1,641. He also was the leading scorer among non-kickers with 102 points — posting 15 rushing touchdowns as well as two on receptions.
“That was really a great example this past weekend of how they like to play football down there — be physical, be aggressive, run the ball, control the clock and really just do a good job of just handling the game,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “The run game going the way they have it going, obviously it sets up the play-action pass game.”
For Wilfork, a key is recognizing when Houston’s offensive linemen use cut blocks.
“That running back sees it and he hits it right off that cut block. So, up front it’s going to be very important for us to try to stay on our feet,” he said. “Any team that runs the ball the way they run the ball and has the play-action and the bootlegs and all the stuff that comes after that, it’s a big challenge for us.
“But we’ve faced it.”