The Patriots and Texans meet Monday night in a game that should have a significant impact on the AFC playoff race. Houston has a two-game lead on the Patriots for the first overall seed, but a loss would cut that margin to one and leave the Texans no more margin for error.
It's been a long time since the Patriots have been looking up at a young upstart team in the standings, and there's no question the Texans are a talented bunch with the kind of weapons to potentially exploit New England's weaknesses on both sides of the ball.
It's a fantastic matchup that should be a great game to watch.
Here are our 10 keys to the game for the Patriots.
Mike Dussault is a New England Patriots Featured Columnist and also edits PatsPropaganda.com. He co-hosts the PatsPropaganda & Frenz podcast with AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz. You can follow him on Twitter here.
There haven't been many games in the past decade where the Patriots needed to stop the run and couldn't. Really, only the 2009 AFC Wild Card game against the Ravens comes to mind.
There's no question that Foster and the running game are what kick starts the entire Texans offense, so the Pats front seven will have their work cut out for them. If the Patriots do nothing else on Monday night, stopping Foster will be biggest key, and the first domino that must fall if the Patriots defense is to slow down the vaunted Texans attack.
Will the Patriots throw a twist at the Texans and open in their run stopping 3-4 defense? I doubt it. With Chandler Jones expected to return, the Pats should use play a majority of the game in their "double nose" 4-3 base defense. In this personnel, it's imperative that New England stops the run with its front seven so it can allow its back four to deal with the Texans receiving' threats.
Houston presents a balanced attack; just the reason the Patriots evolved into this 4-3 defense. It will truly be put to the test on Monday night.
You need to look no further than the last two Super Bowls against the Giants and what Justin Tuck did to Tom Brady and the Pats offensive line to see the kind of impact an elite interior rush can have on the Patriots offense.
With J.J. Watt, obviously he’s having a great year and obviously he’s a great player no matter where they line him up. The fact that they move him a little bit inside and outside, we’re going to have to have more than one guy ready to handle him and block him. It won’t just fall to the guard or to the tackle. It could be anybody at times, based on the way they play him. We have to do a great job of trying to simulate his effort, his motor and some of the things he does to disrupt people in the running game and the passing game and have to make sure we’re very mindful of taking care of the football and not letting him get his hands on balls, because he’s certainly created a lot of disruptive opportunities for them defensively by tipping the ball and batting the ball up in the air. [I’ve] got a ton of respect for him, their entire defense, certainly Coach Phillips and their defensive staff. We’re really looking forward to the challenge this week.
The Patriots' patchwork offensive line will have its work cut out for it this week, although early indications are that both Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly should be good to go. Mankins has missed five of the last six games, and he'll be immediately thrown into the fire having to face a challenge like Watt, who Bill Belichick praised as a potential Defensive Player of the Year.
The Patriots defense has improved against the deep balls in recent weeks, but Andre Johnson is the kind of physical threat who can torch any defense long.
Conventional wisdom would say that the Pats will commit their best corner, Aqib Talib, to covering Johnson one-on-one for most of the game. After all, it was this game in particular that the pundits pointed to as the Patriots' reason for picking up Talib.
But so far, Talib has been average at best and was the victim of five receptions on nine targets against the Dolphins last weekend. Historically, the Patriots don't like to match corners on receivers, instead preferring to keep them to one side, but there's no question that Talib is a far better option than the scrappy rookie Alfonzo Dennard given Johnson's size, strength and experience.
The Texans use Johnson in a variety ways, so defending him will be a team effort, but the biggest key is not getting beat deep by him. The Patriots struggled against the deep ball for much of the season, and that was against receivers and quarterbacks far less deadly than Johnson and Matt Schaub.
Expect Devin McCourty to remain over the top of Johnson on most snaps to help prevent any long balls. Johnson will surely get his share of catches, but keeping him contained, and especially making clean tackles on him when he does make underneath grabs, is paramount to the game plan.
There's no question the Patriots thrive off of turnovers, especially when they get more than two, but the Texans don't turn the ball over much at all. While the Patriots lead the NFL with a plus-24 turnover ratio, the Texans are tied for second at plus-14.
That's why this game is shaping up to be such an interesting matchup for the Patriots. The Patriots have taken away 19 fumbles this year, but the Texans have only given away two all year. Something will have to give, and if the Patriots cannot win the turnover battle, their defense will have to make up the difference by stopping the formidable Texans offense.
It's an excellent challenge for the Patriots, one that could expose their flaws or demonstrate that they're able to overcome their dependency on turnovers against elite teams.
The Texans have the best defense in the NFL on third down (28 percent), and the Patriots have the best offense (53 percent). This should make for an epic chess match on the most important down in football.
But really, success on third down is largely tied to success on first and second down, which means the team that stops the run better will set itself up better for success.
Specifically, the Texans defense allows conversions on 3rd-and-6-plus 23 percent of the time, but on 3rd-and-5 or less, it allows conversions 39 percent of the time. That is a significant difference and also a greater jump than the Patriots offense in the same situations (38 percent and 48 percent, respectively).
To avoid the buzzsaw that is the Texans' third-down defense, the Patriots will need strong playcalling and game-planning on early downs. The more 3rd-and-longs they can avoid, the better they'll be set up to sustain drives.
If the Texans have a defensive weakness, the most obvious one is their pass coverage, especially vs. No. 2 wide receivers. While they rank fourth against the pass and sixth against the run in Football Outsiders' DVOA metrics, they're 28th covering No. 2 wideouts.
Now, on paper, this would appear to open things up for Wes Welker, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the Texans challenge the Patriots by putting their best cover corner, Jonathan Joseph, on Welker. Joseph has been battling injuries, but should rise to the challenge of facing the Pats. With the Patriots' depleted attack, it would make sense to force Brady to beat them by going to Brandon Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez.
Of course, Hernandez could then very well be the one who eats up the Texans, especially in the middle of the field. But there's no question that Welker is the Patriots' most potent weapon with Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman out, Hernandez still getting back into game shape after his ankle injury and Lloyd often MIA for large chunks of games.
No matter who the Texans choose to cover as the Patriots' No. 1 wide receiver, it should open up some options to who they leave as the No. 2. Then it will be up to Brady to exploit them.
With the Patriots ranking first and the Texans ranking fourth in pass protection, there isn't likely to be a lot of sacks in this one. So the difference will likely come down to whose defensive line can cause more pressure and disruption throughout the game.
There's been plenty of praise for JJ Watt throughout the week, and deservedly so; however, this might be playing right into the hands of Vince Wilfork. Let's not forget that Wilfork can dominate games just like Watt can, as evidenced in last year's AFC Championship where Wilfork was unblockable.
Don't put it past Belichick to be knowingly turning the screws on Big Vince with his effusive praise of Watt. Wilfork hears it all, and should come out with something to prove. If Vince is on his game, the Texans are in trouble.
I'm with everyone in having JJ Watt & Von Miller as leaders for DPOY. But starting to think Patriots NT Vince Wilfork is in the discussion.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) December 4, 2012
For all the focus that Arian Foster and Andre Johnson will get, it might be Owen Daniels who can do the most damage to the Patriots. It hasn't been widely discussed, but the Patriots are actually one of the worst teams in the NFL covering tight ends (29th) and "other" wide receivers (30th) (meaning third/fourth WRs).
Now, part of this is due to lackluster play from their slot cornerbacks, but in recent weeks, Kyle Arrington has shown great improvement in that role. However, covering tight ends remains an issue for the Pats because they lack a true coverage linebacker.
For all the talk of how limited Brandon Spikes is in coverage, he has more passes defended (seven) than any of the linebackers. But with the threat of Foster and the running game, Spikes will have to be alert to play action. If he the Texans get him to bite, the middle of the field could be open all day long not only for Daniels, but Keyshawn Martin and Lester Jean as well.
If stopping Foster is the biggest key, not biting on play action goes hand in hand with it.
It might be too simplified, but I believe whichever team has better success on the ground is the team that will win this game. The Texans are built to run. The Patriots run it when the opportunity is there. Both will be put to the test on Monday night.
The Patriots can overcome if their running game is held in check by using their short passing attack that serves in effect as a run game that avoids the defensive line, but there really is no substitute for grinding yards out the good old-fashioned way.
The Pats sealed their game against Miami with a lethal fourth-quarter drive that featured 12 runs out of 16 plays. That's not something we've seen out of the Patriots in a long time. Against the Dolphins is one thing, though; against a potential AFC Championship opponent is something else.
The Patriots teams that won Super Bowls did it on the back of physical running games that controlled the clock and kept opposing offenses off the field. Does this Patriots team have that ingredient? This game will tell us a lot.
As always with the Patriots, this game will likely come down to late in the fourth quarter, and then it will just be a matter of the offense making a game-sealing drive or the defense making a game-sealing stop.
In recent weeks, we've seen signs of this finishing attitude, whether it was Devin McCourty's interception of Ryan Fitzpatrick to seal the Patriots' win in Week 10 or the offense putting together a clock-killing drive in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins.
It doesn't matter who steps up on which side of the ball. In close games, especially in the playoffs, playmakers must make the difference, and the Patriots will need theirs to step up and make the big play to close this one out.
The Texans are to good to leave the door open for a comeback. The Patriots must slam the door shut when they have the chance; otherwise, they could be paying the price with an extra playoff game in January and a potential rematch with the Texans in Houston instead of the cold cozy confines of Foxboro.