After holding on for a 23-16 win over the division rival Miami Dolphins last week, the New England Patriots (9-3) will be back on the field Monday evening against the AFC-leading Houston Texans (11-1).
Here are the five most important things to watch for.
Can the Patriots' offensive line contain JJ Watt?
JJ Watt is a baaaaad man. When Bill Belichick dubbed him "the most disruptive player in the league" earlier in the week, he did so with good reason. The second-year man from Wisconsin has sacked the quarterback 16.5 times thus far this season and deflected 19 balls at the line of scrimmage with his tremendous NBA center-type wingspan. What makes JJ Watt different is the inside position that he lines up at, as opposed to the traditional pass-rusher's spot on the end of the defensive line. The expected return of left guard Logan Mankins should help the Patriots tremendously in the pass blocking department, but they'll need a group effort from the offensive line if they hope to contain Watt and fellow pass-rusher Antonio Smith.
This will be the toughest test of the season for the New England run defense
The Patriots' run defense has performed admirably this season, often neutralizing the opposing tailback in each of the team's games. However, this week they will be facing their most difficult test of the season in Texans' all-star Arian Foster. The fifth-year man out of Tennessee has already rushed for 1,102 yards and 13 touchdowns this season and is widely regarded as the best running back in the entire NFL. By the end of the night we should know exactly how good the New England front-seven is at stopping the run.
Can the Patriots neutralize Andre Johnson?
Outside of tight end Owen Daniels, Andre Johnson is the only real big-play threat in the Texans' passing game. The wily veteran is currently working on a 1,100-yard season and is sporting an impressive 15.1 yards-per-reception average. With Johnson being such a big and physical wide receiver, standing at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, I'd expect the Patriots to match him up against Aqib Talib, the team's largest cornerback. One would also think that Talib will be given a lot of help over the top from physical safety Devin McCourty. If the Patriots are able to take away Andre Johnson, things are going to get awful tough for Matt Schaub and the Houston offense on Monday night.
Can the Patriots exploit the injuries in the Houston defense?
Starting middle linebacker Brian Cushing, starting cornerback Brice McCain, starting left outside linebacker Brooks Reed, and possibly reserve defensive back Alan Ball will all be absent from the lineup for Houston when the Texans take the field against the Patriots. Ordinarily, the Texans defense is about as tough as they come in the NFL and the return of number one corner Jonathan Joseph will definitely benefit their pass defense, but I can't help but think that the large number of injuries they've faced this season will go unexposed against a Tom Brady offense. Look for tight end Aaron Hernandez to have a huge game this week as Houston doesn't have a healthy linebacker good enough to keep up with him running down the field.
Is this a playoff preview?
Under any one of a number of scenarios, the Patriots and Texans could wind up as playoff opponents, be it in the divisional round of the AFC championship. The outcome of Monday's game will go a long way towards deciding where that potential rematch will be played. If the Patriots are to be defeated by the Texans, they will no longer have a shot to catch them in the standings. If the Patriots can win this game and the remaining four on their schedule, it would only take one Houston loss to put New England into the driver's seat. On Sunday afternoon, the Washington Redskins did the Pats a huge solid in coming from behind to defeat their mid-Atlantic rivals, the Baltimore Ravens. With the Ravens' loss, and their impeccably tough schedule to conclude the year, the Patriots can almost afford to lose one of their final four games and still have a solid shot at a first round bye. Being that this could wind up as a playoff match-up in just a few weeks, I wouldn't expect Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to show a lot of his best defensive looks.
Prediction: The Houston Texans are a much better football team than a lot of people around here are giving them credit for. In fact, Monday could be the night they really display just how good of a team they are in front of a nationally-televised audience. However, at home in December, I just can't pick against Tom Brady. Patriots win a nail-biter, 27-24.
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