The entire football world will be tuned into Foxborough Monday night when Houston (11-1) comes to town to take on a Patriots (9-3) team that's in the midst of a six-game winning streak. This massive AFC matchup pits two clear Super Bowl contenders, with potential playoff seeding on the line. Beyond that, the game is a measuring stick for both the upstart Texans and a Patriots team that's building steam late in the season. Neither team will win the Lombardi Trophy Monday night at Gillette, but a win could go a long way toward helping get one of these two talented squads a step closer to the Super Bowl. As we wind down the hype for this alluring matchup, kick your feet up and crack open the everything-is-bigger-in-Texas Texans Edition Friday Six-Pack!
1. Lost advantage – The Patriots continue to lead the NFL with a plus-24 turnover ratio New England has turned the ball over less than any team (nine times) and only the Bears have more takeaways than the Patriots 33. The turnover margin is usually a huge advantage for Bill Belichick's squad. But that is negated a bit this week. Houston comes to town tied for the second-best turnover ratio in the game at plus-14. And while the Patriots have taken a league-high 19 fumbles away from opponents this season, the Texans have lost just two fumbles all year, fewest in the NFL. Last week's struggle in South Florida was the first time this season that the Patriots didn't have a positive turnover ratio, having played it even with Miami. New England's defense has obviously benefited greatly from forcing turnovers, and heading into this matchup with the NFL's No. 4 overall offense, the question is whether the Patriots can stop the Texans if the defense can't force turnovers at its usual high pace. Given the way that Houston has taken care of the football so far, we may have to get the answer to that question on Monday night.
2. Spread-able? – The best way to attack the Texans at this point is probably to spread them out and throw the football. Houston's pass defense is banged up and ranks just 19th in the league in terms of yards, despite a very good pass rush. Part of that is about teams having to throw the ball in an effort to come back. Part of it is that the Texans are good at stopping the run. But Green Bay's offense keyed the victory in Houston's only loss of the season as Aaron Rodgers threw for six TDs, with both Jordy Nelson (three scores) and Randall Cobb topping the 100-yard mark. The Patriots generally have the type of offense that is capable of comparable numbers to that and then some. But injuries have limited Tom Brady's options of late. With Rob Gronkowski hurt and Julian Edelman on IR, the bodies ready to spread things out are less bountiful. And Brandon Lloyd has been a non-factor of late. That had Brady completing 20 of his 24 passes in Miami to the duo of Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez. But both guys are generally slot type players and do their work inside the numbers. Can Lloyd finally make his mark on the outside? Is Donte Stallworth ready to come in and make some plays in the passing game right away? The Patriots offense already had its troubles with pretty physical defenses with solid pass rushers early this season in losses to the Cardinals and Seahawks. Even dealing with injuries, the Texans have the talent, scheme and potential to give the Patriots problems. It will be interesting to see what Josh McDaniels cooks up in this matchup with veteran defensive mind Wade Phillips.
3. Foster care – Teams generally try to stop the run every week and make teams one dimensional, but that's even more of a concern against the Texans. The Houston offense is built around getting Arian Foster 20-plus carries, getting things going on the ground and then utilizing the play-action pass. Gary Kubiak's squad doesn't vary from that game plan too often, and really just challenges opposing defenses to stop it. Foster is averaging just 3.9 yards a carry, but he leads the NFL with 13 rushing touchdowns while ranking fifth with 1,102 yards. The Patriots rush defense has been a bit less stout the last month or so, although that in some ways coincided with Chandler Jones' injury. It looks like the rookie should be back at his right end spot, allowing Rob Ninkovich to go back to his left end job. That should help the front in this matchup, but it's also important to keep an eye on the knee injury that seemed to force Kyle Love into reserve duty in Miami as well as the ankle injury that was added to Brandon Spikes practice status this week. Really this should be the type of game that Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork live for. It's offensive line vs. defensive front in a physical battle. If Houston gets it going on the ground it could be a long day for New England. If the run defense is up to the challenge, it will force Matt Schaub to carry more of the load. He's been able to do that when asked at times, but it's not the ideal scenario for the visitors. Stopping Foster is a key first step in stopping the Texans.
4. You know Watt! – If Foster is the focal point of the Texans offense, then J.J. Watt is clearly the same for the Houston defense. The second-year star is making a bid to become a rare defensive NFL MVP. He has 16.5 sacks and a crazy 15 passes defensed. He also leads the team in tackles with 83, has 28 tackles for a loss, 32 QB hits, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. Belichick called him the most disruptive player in the league and that's no pre-game fluff – it's a fact. Watt is a 3-4 end who bumps down inside in sub packages, which Houston is in a lot of the time. He will see a lot of Nate Solder and potentially a returning Logan Mankins. Normally a Watt matchup with Mankins would be worth the price of admission for those who like physical play and old-school violent players, but if Mankins can indeed return to action it bears watching what level he can play at after missing the last three games and five of the last six. There is also the chance that Mankins could rotate at times, meaning Donald Thomas will have another chance to improve on his impressive season in action against the game's best defender. Watt is putting up historic numbers. Brady said he can't spend a lot of time thinking about the impact defensive lineman and just has to trust his own line to get the job done. But with how frequently Watt knocks down passes and gets to quarterbacks and ball carriers behind the line, really every New England offensive player needs to know where No. 99 is and what he's doing on every snap. The Patriots had been an almost impenetrable wall against the pass rush until last week when Cameron Wake and the Dolphins banged Brady around a bit. New England is still No. 4 in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play. On the other side Watt leads a pass rush that ranks No. 5 in the league in sacks per pass play. Trench warfare will clearly play a key role in deciding this game and Watt will be at the center of all the action. Ding! Ding!
5. Third down – Third down is the money down in the NFL. It will also likely decide the winner in this game. The Patriots offense is No. 1 in the NFL on third down. The Texans defense is No. 1 in the NFL on third down. Which strength is stronger? Can Brady move the chains often enough, even under the duress of the Texans pass rush, to put enough scoring drives together? Can Houston force the Patriots to punt, something New England simply isn't all that used to doing? And on the other sides of the ball, the Patriots are 29th in the NFL in third down defense while the Texans offense ranks a more respectable 13th. The way the Texans play in terms of running the ball early on, the Patriots should have chances to make some third-and-short stops. Win a couple of those and it could change the way the game is played the rest of the way. Give those up, and it could be a long day. And Houston's play-action passes on such third-down plays will be huge. The Patriots linebackers and secondary players have struggled all year against the pass and with some communication. Guys peeking in the backfield or getting sucked up by run fakes would give the likes of Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels the chance to make plenty of plays down the field. In a game where the turnover battle could be a non-factor based on the team's resumes coming in, third down is the next most likely simple statistic that could decide this battle.
6. Spot on – The Texans come to Foxborough in a tough spot. Houston has been on the road each of the last two weeks. The team played consecutive overtime games in a five-day span thanks to a tough Thanksgiving battle in Detroit and a dogfight after finding it tough to beat the Jags. A week before that was a tight battle with the Bears in Chicago. As much as Houston will be amped up for this road battle with Brady and the NFL's best team of the last decade-plus, there is also a strong likelihood that the Texans are a bit worn down at this point. The Patriots, on the other hand, return home amidst a six-game winning streak that's littered with blowouts. While the Texans haven't lost on the road all year, the Patriots haven't lost in the second half of the season in two-plus years and have won 12-straight regular season games in December. In fact the Patriots haven't lost a home game in December since falling to the Jets a decade ago in 2002. If the Texans want to assert themselves as the best team in football and the favorite to win the Super Bowl, a win in this spot in New England would be a good way to do it. But it clearly isn't an easy task, on a lot of levels.
To steal a line from Peter Carroll, I'm as pumped and jacked for this gameas I have been for any game in quite some time. It's a great matchup between two very good football teams. The Texans are arguably the most balanced team in the NFL in terms of offense and defense, and within those two units. They have the best record in the AFC. They have stars and playmakers on both sides of the ball. And the Patriots are putting together yet another late-season run. It's a dream matchup for ESPN and Monday Night Football. Jon Gruden might actually pop a blood vessel in excitement. I expect both teams to show up ready to play. I'll be stunned if either side lays a stinker or if the game turns into a blowout either way. In the end I think the Patriots have the balance on offense to attack the Texans, especially if Brady can get hot early and bounce back from a lackluster day in Miami. There should be room to throw the ball against the Texans, especially on quick throws. And while I still have questions about the Patriots defense, the unit should be able to be more than competitive against the Houston running game and a bigger-type back in Arian Foster. Johnson scares the heck out of me in terms of big plays, but that's just something Aqib Talib, Devin McCourty and the rest will have to deal with. Bottom line is that with the way Houston has been in dogfights over the last month and in its third-straight game on the road I'm leaning slightly toward the Patriots. I don't see a shootout, given a solid Texans defense. I'll go with a 27-21 win for the Patriots, a victory that will further emphasize the fact that New England a clear contender for a title yet again in 2012. Regardless of the outcome, this is a game that no football fan should miss!