The Texans (11-1) are a more than logical pick if anyone asks who the best team in the league is. With a passing attack of Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson, a rushing attack led by Arian Foster and a defense led by a number of Pro Bowl players, including J.J Watt, there's more than enough talent to win football games.
The Patriots (9-3) are a slightly less obvious "best team" candidate with two extra losses, but they have won six straight and have one of the most balanced and high-octane offenses in the entire NFL. Additionally, their defense is less of a liability than ever before.
Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden will have the call, but which of these great AFC teams gets the win as they head toward the playoffs?
Key Storyline No. 1: Which Team Has the Will to Win?
When I say "to win," I mean both this game and for the rest of the season. Both of these teams have tough schedules coming up. The Texans have two games remaining with the Colts, while the Patriots still have the 49ers on their schedule.
Both of these teams will be asked to pass this huge test Monday night without looking forward at the tough opponent in Week 15 after a short preparation. These are the stretches that define a team.
Right now, the Texans have plenty of question marks in their past, even if they only have one loss. For me, the win against the New York Jets in Week 5 stands out. The Texans let the Jets hang around far too long and nearly lost a game they should've won by 20. Overtime wins against Jacksonville and Detroit stick out like red flags as well.
The Patriots also have warts on their otherwise solid record. The loss to the Arizona Cardinals at home looks more and more inexcusable by the week. They let the Jets and the Buffalo Bills hang around too.
The team that wins this week, especially if they turn around and win in Week 15 as well, will effectively be in the driver's seat for the rest of the season.
Key Storyline No. 2: Which Team Is Healthy Enough to Win?
Of course, it's not always just about the intangibles.
Brooks Reed is out and top special teams player Alan Ball is questionable. Johnathan Joseph is probable, but he's dinged up and may not be 100 percent against a Patriots offense that will demand his best.
Rob Gronkowski, Chandler Jones and Logan Mankins are all out for the Patriots. While the Patriots can and have won without those guys, it certainly changes the character of their team with them out.
The Patriots also have a host of players listed as questionable, but Bill Belichick always makes it an exercise in futility to discuss which of those guys are legitimately less than healthy at game time.
On Monday Night Football, as well as the rest of the season, the healthiest team may come out the victor. It's an era of parity in the NFL, and having all of your players on the field remains one of the easiest paths to victory.
Keys for the Houston Texans
As good as the Patriots run defense is (eighth in the league), the Texans will need to maintain a balanced attack on Monday night. The Patriots haven't been as adept at stopping zone blocking this season (see: Miami, Jets earlier in the year), and the Texans excel in that area.
Against the Patriots defense, if a team can get to the second level and get blockers on Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, they're rarely going to flow over and get stops before damage is already done.
Still, as much as the Texans can be successful on the ground, they'll likely have their greatest success through the air. If Andre Johnson is ever one-on-one, Schaub needs to take that shot.
While the Texans are on defense, they need to pressure Brady. The Giants have shown us how to beat this Patriots team, and the Texans have the bodies to follow that blue print, especially if Joseph is healthy. If the Texans battle along the line of scrimmage and force Brady to pass under duress, they'll get their hands on some of his passes.
Keys for the New England Patriots
The Patriots need to run the ball as well. The Texans are second in the league in rushing defense, but letting Watt and company play against a one-dimensional passing offense is a one-way trip to the trainer's table.
Stevan Ridley may not have a great game on Monday night, but 60 to 75 yards is a solid target and would probably ensure a Patriots victory.
Through the air, the Patriots would be wise to spread out the field and let Watt come at Brady without any extra blockers in the backfield.
Yes, you heard that correctly.
With Gronkowski out, the best protection for Brady is not putting Aaron Hernandez or one of the backs in there and praying they figure out how to block all of a sudden. No, spreading it out four- or five-wide and throwing shorter routes out of shotgun could completely neutralize the Texans pass rush.
Defensively, the Patriots need to find ways to shut down the Texans running game out of their subpackages. While their defensive backs aren't quite as bad as they've been in recent years and probably better than they're credited for, it's going to be a disaster if the Texans catch them in a base 4-3 and push the seam with Owen Daniels.
Of course, as always, the best defense for the Patriots is scoring a massive amount of points right away and forcing the Texans to play at their tempo.
Bold Prediction: J.J. Watt Is Held Without a Sack
As said above, Brady has a chance to hold Watt at bay all by himself. If the Patriots commit max protect to Watt, he'll beat the protection, and Brady will be on his backside.
My bold prediction for Monday night is that the Patriots will spread it out and keep Watt guessing. He will be trying to bat down passes rather than putting Brady on the turf.
Player of the Game Prediction: Tom Brady
So, if Brady isn't being harassed by Watt, he's going to have a great day through the air. Look for plenty of connections to Wes Welker and Hernandez and a couple of shots down the field to test the health of Joseph.
If Brady has a good game, that means a Patriots win in what should be a phenomenal Monday Night Football matchup.
Final Score Prediction: Patriots 37, Texans 33
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.
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