Now that the Patriots have overcome the AFC East flotsam to secure their 10th division title in the last 12 years, it's time for the real games to begin.
That's not to say all of the team's previous 12 contests have been unimportant. It's just that on Monday night, when the 11-1 Houston Texans invade Gillette Stadium, the Pats will embark on their two biggest games of season in the span of six days, with a tilt against the San Francisco 49ers in a possible Super Bowl preview coming next Sunday night.
But first, the Texans, who finally broke through to make the playoffs last year after nine seasons of mediocrity or worse and have now matriculated to the top of the NFL, tied with the Atlanta Falcons for the best record in the league.
The numbers bear their standing out. The Texans are second in the league in scoring offense (29.2 PPG), fourth in total offense (389.6 YPG) and 10th and sixth in passing and rushing, respectively.
On defense, they're pretty much just as good. Houston is in the top five in points allowed, yards allowed and against the run (second overall), with only its pass defense (235 YPG, 19th overall) lagging behind. In other words, the Texans are the best team the Pats will have faced all year.
When you look at what the Texans do best vs. what the Pats do best, however, this game would seem to favor the Pats. They are at their best when they spread their opponents out and let Tom Brady go to work. The Texans, as noted, aren't as effective in defending that kind of offense and they have been racked with injuries on the defensive side of the ball.
And on the other side, Houston is at its best when the game is in the hands of superstar back Arian Foster, who is fifth in the league in rushing and has scored 11 TDs thus far. But the Pats' biggest strength on D is stopping the run especially between the tackles.
You could make the argument that these are the two best teams in the AFC and with as much respect as we're able to muster for the sagging Baltimore Ravens, that's probably true. It could very well be a preview of the AFC Championship, with the only difference being that game will likely be played in Houston instead of Foxborough, although a Pats' win on Monday night would go a long way toward setting up a possible rematch to be played at Gillette.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. That game, no matter who winds up playing in it, it well over a month away. This one will happen in three days. So with that, let's get into a few of the more compelling match ups to be found on this week's edition of Monday Night Football.
When the Texans pass the ball.
Here's where this game may turn. Although the Pats have been much better against the pass since the Aqib Talib trade and have seemingly settled on their most productive combination in the secondary, they haven't really been forced to cope with a combination of Houston QB Matt Schaub and receiver Andre Johnson in any of their three games over that stretch.
The Colts presented a similar issue with Andrew Luck and the incredible Reggie Wayne. But Luck, as good as he's been, is not as far along as Schaub, who has stayed healthy this year and is a top 10 QB. His numbers don't lie: he's in the top 10 in the league in completion percentage, TD passes, fewest interceptions thrown and passer rating.
Of course, a lot of Houston's success in their passing game is predicated on how well they run the ball, which we'll get to momentarily. The Texans don't want to get into a track meet if they can help it. They would prefer running to set up the pass and to use a lot of play action. That's what makes their offense and guys like Johnson look even better.
Johnson is not as young as he once was (and really, who is?) but he's still a supremely talented receiver, one of the league's best. He's a beast at 6'3", 230, and although he has just three TDs, he's caught 74 balls for 1,114 yards (15.1 YPC) and is the only receiver in the league in the top 10 of those three categories not to have lost a fumble all year.
It just so happens that Johnson is currently on fire as well. He has 28 catches for 517 yards in his last three games and will almost certainly require some double coverage in this game.
After Johnson, the Texans are big on their tight end Owen Daniels, who has 50 catches for 598 yards and six scores. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Daniels have more success in this one than Johnson given the Pats' noted issues in covering tight ends with their linebackers. And if they have to commit to safety help on Johnson so that Talib isn't stuck covering him one-on-one all night, that could mean more opportunities for Daniels to do damage on the likes of Dont'a Hightower or Jerod Mayo.
The pickings get a little slimmer after those two. Kevin Walter is a solid slot/No. 3 receiver but is no great shakes and Kyle Arrington has been very good in slot coverage over the past three weeks. But Johnson and Daniels are an extremely potent combo which works very well with Schaub, who has had five-plus seasons in which to throw to them. If the Pats can get consistent pressure on Schaub in obvious passing situations (which will be easier to accomplish if Chandler Jones, who has practiced each of the last two days, returns from his ankle injury) and not sacrifice too much manpower to slowing down Johnson, they can win this match up. Right now though, it feels almost too close to call.
When the Texans run the ball.
Here's where Houston is at its best. Head coach Gary Kubiak cut his teeth as an offensive coordinator in Denver, where he helped to oversee a zone blocking system for running the ball, a scheme that made no-names like Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary and, most famously, Terrell Davis, into stars.
Not surprisingly, the Texans employ the same scheme with their running game and that has turned Foster, an undrafted free agent who came off the practice squad at the tail end of the 2009 season, posted his first ever 100-yard game against the Pats in Week 17 of that year, opened the 2010 campaign with a mind-blowing 231 yards and three TDs on 33 attempts and hasn't looked back since, into a star.
The point is that this scheme works and works very, very well. The Texans know this, which is why they run the ball more than any other team in the league at over 34 times per game. And their passing game relies on their success on the ground as well. Again, they will run when they can and use play action to keep opposing defenses slightly off balance thereafter, a strategy designed to keep safeties and linebackers from being in the right spot to defend Johnson, Daniels and the rest of their pass catchers. Ten of Schaub's 21 TD passes this season have come on play fakes, placing him first in the league in that category along with a couple of dudes you may or may not have heard of named Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.
In the heart of the Pats' defense, where Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love and Brandon Spikes play, the Texans may run into trouble if they choose to run Foster there a lot. Foster is a big, tough back at 6;2", 220. Because of his height, his running style is more along the lines of an Eddie George or a Corey Dillon (or a Stevan Ridley) than most prototypical power backs. Expect more off tackle, outside and stretch runs from them, both in an effort to stay away from Wilfork and friends on the inside as well as to take advantage of Foster's strengths.
This aspect of the game will be huge for the Pats. They want to make the Texans one-dimensional and while it's a long shot to expect them to stop Foster completely, slowing him down enough to lessen the impact of Houston's reliance on play action will be key. The Texans can play in shootouts as they showed in their 43-37 comeback win over Jacksonville in Week 11. But they'd rather not. And they're very good at dictating pace so as to stay out of those situations.
When the Patriots pass the ball.
This game would represent a great time for the Pats to have all of their offensive weapons healthy and at their disposal. Again, their best chance of victory will be to play fast, faster and fastest and turn this one into a track meet.
Without Rob Gronkowski or Julian Edelman though, that won't be as easy. And their health issues up front will make passing at will a bit more of a challenge as well (although Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer have all been practicing up to this point this week) especially considering the presence of the likely Defensive Player of the Year on Houston's D-line in the person of J.J. Watt.
The second-year star out of Wisconsin has 16.5 sacks on the year and he is second in the league in pass breakups, an unheard of accomplishment for a defensive end. When you take into account that no player in the league has even close to as many sacks, passes defensed and INTs combined, it's clear why the Pats not only need to be at full strength up front but were practicing with defenders waving tennis rackets in the air at Tom Brady during the week.
Should Brady have time to throw (and with the exception of last week in Miami, that hasn't been much of an issue all year), the Pats can be successful even without Gronk and Edelman. Houston's Achilles heel is its pass defense (ranked 19th in the league), which stands to be worse with its best corner, Johnathan Joseph, potentially out for a third straight game with a hamstring injury.
The Texans were the worst team in the league against the pass just two years ago but with the import of Joseph, safety Danieal Manning, Watt and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, they are now much better in that regard. Still, it's tough to see Brady having too difficult a time throwing on this defense provided Watt is kept under control whether Joseph plays or not.
This is a team that gave up just under 400 yards through the air and 37 points to the Jaguars just three weeks ago and that was with Joseph healthy. If he plays, he will probably draw Wes Welker with Manning spending time looking after Aaron Hernandez. But will that be enough? And what if this is the week Brandon Lloyd gets back to being a more primary threat now that Edelman's injury has moved him back up the depth chart? Even without Edelman and Gronk, there may still be too many weapons for the Texans to handle.
When you look at the Texans' shortcomings against the pass alongside the Pats' strength throwing, this would seem to be a match up that clearly favors the Pats. We'll see if that holds true come game time, but don't be surprised to see Brady's numbers bounce back toward Jets and Colts game levels.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Texans 21
Did you know that Brady is 24-2 in December (and early January) in his career? Did you know that the Texans are the team closest to the Pats' league leading turnover differential number at +14? Did you know that the only quarterback with a higher winning percentage over the past two seasons than Brady is Schaub? Did you know that these two teams are both really, really good? Well, they are, which is why this game has the makings of a classic. The biggest key for both teams will be controlling the tempo. If Houston can run the ball they was it wants to, it will open up their play action stuff and keep the Pats' offense on the field. If the Pats can speed the game up and get the score up into the 30s, the Texans will be out of their comfort zone and have to go away from what they do best offensively. These are the types of games that define seasons and the Pats having the home field advantage should be enough to propel them to a close victory.