Entering Week 14, the Patriots look up to just one team in the AFC standings: the Houston Texans, who hold a two-game lead on the field at 11-1. But the Patriots will have a chance to narrow the gap on Monday night, as they play host to Houston in what will be a highly-anticipated prime-time matchup between the two teams that some believe are the class of the AFC.
The Texans made the playoffs for the first time in their franchise's history in 2011, and have carried the momentum into a blazing start in 2012.
Here's a brief introduction to the Texans, with some of the names and faces of note.
Record: 11-1 (first in AFC South, clinched playoff berth)
Head coach: Gary Kubiak (seventh season, 58-50)
Offensive coordinator: Rick Dennison
Defensive coordinator: Wade Phillips
FOUR PLAYERS TO KNOW, OFFENSE
1. RB Arian Foster. From undrafted to nearly unstoppable, Foster is amongst the best running backs in all of football, and a perfect fit in Houston's running-based offense that relies heavily on a zone blocking scheme. While not the fastest player on the field, Foster has sensational vision and cut-back ability, and is an adept pass catcher who does it all in Houston. Despite his average yards per carry being down this season, he continues to tote the heavy load for Houston, trailing only three other backs in rushing yards and leading all players with 13 rushing touchdowns (four ahead of Stevan Ridley's nine, second-best in the NFL). He might just be the best back the Patriots face all season.
2. WR Andre Johnson. Entering November, some were wondering whether or not Johnson was declining physically at the age of 31, but he quickly silenced his critics with an unbelievable month highlighted by consecutive games totaling 461 yards, the most in a two-game span in NFL history. The veteran can hurt a defense in a number of ways, as he's used down the field, in the intermediate passing game, and also as a screen receiver near the line of scrimmage. He's big, fast, physical, catches everything, smart, and is consistently amongst the most productive receivers in football every year due to much more than coincidence.
3. QB Matt Schaub. The steady Schaub may not always be talked about in the same light as the elite quarterbacks in football, but he's deserving to be in the mix for top 10 signal-callers. He's on pace for another 4,000-plus yard season, and is both efficient and reliable with the football. He's a tough guy too, as he's taken his fair number of big hits this season and bounced back up to keep going. He isn't always asked to win the game with his arm, as Houston's offense is designed in a way to grind games out on the ground, but Schaub can pick apart a defense when called upon. He put up 527 yards in a Week 11 come-from-behind win against Jacksonville.
4. LT Duane Brown. We decided to amend our normal post that highlights just three players from an opponent's offense, because excluding Brown would qualify as an oversight. It's up for debate, but Brown might just be the best offensive tackle in all of football, and the Texans expressed their confidence in the 27-year old with a six-year contract extension this summer that makes him amongst the highest-paid tackles in the NFL. A former tight end who has nimble footwork and athleticism, Brown is yet another precise fit in the Texans offense.
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, DEFENSE
1. DE J.J. Watt. Statistics don't begin to tell the whole story on the second-year defensive end, but they help to paint a picture of his dominance. Watt is second in the NFL with 15.5 sacks, is tied for the team lead with 59 tackles, and also leads all Texans with 15 passes defensed (a truly amazing feat from a defensive lineman). All of this coming from a 3-4 defensive end, a position traditionally known to mitigate statistics, not enhance them. Watt is not just the best defensive player on Houston's roster, he's one of the best players in football, regardless of position. He's a player to identify before every snap.
2. CB Johnathan Joseph. When healthy, Joseph is a pivotal piece to the Texans secondary. Problem is, he's currently nursing a hamstring injury that has forced him out of consecutive games. His status for Monday night is unknown as of now, and the Texans secondary has looked vulnerable in recent weeks, further heightening the importance of his return. He signed with Houston prior to the 2011 season, and in 25 games played, Joseph has six interceptions and 89 tackles. Monitoring Joseph's health throughout the week will likely be a key storyline.
3. LB Whitney Mercilus. There are more well-known Texans defenders, but Mercilus has been thrust into a big spot with linebacker Brooks Reed out due to a significant groin injury. Mercilus, a top draft choice in 2012, answered the bell in his first game as a starter, notching two sacks in Houston's Week 13 win over the Titans. That pushed his season total to five, and reinforced the skill set that was evident during his final season as a college player at Illinois when he led the country in sacks. The Patriots have done very well to protect quarterback Tom Brady this season, and slowing down players such as Watt and Mercilus will be at a premium when the two teams square off on Monday.
2012 RECAP THROUGH 12 GAMES
Minus one game against the Green Bay Packers, it's been a season filled with largely dominant performances from the Texans. They trail only the Patriots in terms of points scored per game, and are one of the best defensive teams in football, too. It hasn't all been easy, however, as the Texans have earned overtime victories in two of their past three games. Though those were tight, Houston has established itself as the cream of the crop in the AFC with convincing wins over both Baltimore and Denver earlier this season. This Monday night will provide a true test for the Patriots.