Week 14's premier game will, fittingly, take place on Monday Night Football when the Houston Texans (11-1) take on the New England Patriots (9-3) in Foxborough.
Ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the AFC, this game could have massive ramifications for playoff seeding. A Patriots victory wouldn't just pull them within one game of the Texans––it would give them the all-important head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Texans beat Jacksonville handily last weekend, which served as welcome respite after playing––and winning––two consecutive overtime contests.
Meanwhile, in New England, it's been the same story, different year. The Pats haven't lost since Week 6, winning by an average of 19.8 points in the process.
But something's gonna have to give at Gillette this weekend. Let's take a closer look.
When: Monday, Dec. 10th, 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
Live Stream: ESPN3.com
Spread: New England -3.5 (via VegasInsider.com, LVH)
As great as the Pats have been, they haven't been particularly profitable. They're 3-4 ATS in their last seven games, while Houston is 4-2 in their last six.
But still, New England rates drastically, and I mean drastically, higher in Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings. Houston still ranks seventh in the league, but its God-awful special teams unit has really cost it in the numbers.
Ultimately, this comes down to the number 3.5. Houston is on the right side of the key number three, a value that rarely comes around for a team of its caliber.
Pass if you can, but if you need to play, bet Houston with the points.
Over/Under: 51.0 (via VegasInsider.com, LVH)
Football Outsiders has Houston as the second-best defense in the league. But this week, that number might be a bit deceiving.
Decimated by injuries, the vaunted Texans defense has shown some holes of late. It looked hapless in consecutive games against Jacksonville and Detroit, getting scorched for a total of 77 points.
Even without Rob Gronkowski in the lineup, Tom Brady and Co. will exploit everything they see on film from those games.
On the other side of the ball, New England's defense has been prone to fits of incompetence all year long. It's better than it was in 2011, but it still has its work cut out for it against the Texans.
Fifty-one is a huge number, but these two offense should be able to cover it. Take the over.
New England Patriots Injury Report (via USA Today as of Dec. 6, 2012)
|DE Chandler Jones||Ankle||Questionable|
|G Logan Mankins||Ankle||Questionable|
|T Markus Zusevics||Illness||Questionable|
|LB Jermaine Cunningham||Suspension||Out|
|TE Rob Gronkowski||Forearm||Out|
Houston Texans Injury Report (via USA Today as of Dec. 6, 2012)
|TE Garrett Graham||Head||Questionable|
|DB Alan Ball||Foot||Questionable|
|G Antoine Caldwell||Hamstring||Questionable|
|LB Brooks Reed||Groin||Questionable|
|T Derek Newton||Knee||Questionable|
|LB Bradie James||Hamstring||Questionable|
|CB Jonathan Joseph||Hamstring||Questionable|
Fantasy Big Plays
New England Patriots: Brandon Lloyd, WR
At this point, you're probably sick of me linking to and mentioning Football Outsiders. But stick with me: Here's where these advanced metrics really get important.
The Texans' defense is rated third against the pass, which would normally be a red flag for owners of the opposing receiver. But scroll down that page and you'll notice a curious dichotomy: The Texans rank fifth against opposing No. 1 receivers, but 28th against opposing No. 2 receivers.
Lloyd has been up-and-down this season (mostly down), but against a depleted secondary that ignores No. 2 pass-catchers, he could be in for a breakout game.
Houston Texans: Owen Daniels, TE
Still not sick of Football Outsiders?
New England ranks 30th in the league defending the tight end, which could be very auspicious for the Texans' second-leading pass-catcher.
Daniels has six touchdowns in his last nine games, a 66 percent clip that shouldn't come to an end Monday night. Start him with confidence at a position that's been really fickle this season.
Key to Victory: Houston's Depleted Secondary
The status of Johnathan Joseph, currently listed as a game-time decision, could ultimately sway the outcome of this game.
He doesn't have the name recognition of a corner like Darrelle Revis, but Joseph has been one of the game's best for a while now. His absence has been palpable, too: The Houston secondary has surrendered an average of 368 yards to Chad Henne, Matt Stafford and Jake Locker the past three weeks.
If he can't play, corners like Kareem Jackson will need to step up in a big way against the Pats' explosive passing game. If the aforementioned group of quarterbacks can average 368 yards, Brady might be able to put up 500.
Something needs to change in the Texans' secondary if it wants to hang with New England.
The Pats haven't been their usual, dominant selves at home this season. They lost to Arizona in Week 2, needed overtime to beat the Jets in Week 7, and almost coughed up a game vs. Buffalo in Week 10.
The Texans, meanwhile, are undefeated on the road. They're confident in themselves and their system, no matter what field they play on.
In the end, I think the Texans' defensive injuries will catch up with them in a tightly-contested shootout. But bettors will be happy if they get the 3.5.
Predicted Score: New England 34, Houston 31