After wrapping up the AFC East in Week 13, the Patriots are on to bigger goals. There's no better opponent to face in their quest to secure a top-two seed in the AFC than the Houston Texans, owners of the best record in the conference at 11-1.
As if the matchup between two of the AFC's elite wasn't enough, the game will be played in front of a national audience on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" (8:30 p.m. ET), and many will be watching to decipher how these two squads measure up to each other.
Houston's record speaks for itself, but recent defensive struggles and injuries in the secondary have some thinking this team is vulnerable. The Patriots, meanwhile, are streaking with six straight wins but still have something to prove.
Talk this week has centered largely on the force in the middle of Houston's defense, J.J. Watt, who has been so dominant in 2012 that his sack total leaped from 15.5 to 16.5 this week while he wasn't even on the field. (Truth be told, it was a statistical correction from a play previously not ruled a sack, but still.)
Watt, according to Patriots coach Bill Belichick, is the most disruptive player in the NFL, and the Patriots have planned accordingly to simulate his massive presence by having defensive linemen use racquetball rackets this week in practice to elongate their rush lanes.
Watt has already become the first player in NFL history with 15-plus sacks and 15-plus passes defensed in a single season, and he has been shut out of a sack in just two games in 2012. Simply put, he's been a dominant defensive force.
But Watt is much more than a one-man band for the Texans, whose defense ranks near the top of the league, as does their offense.
For the Patriots, Monday is a premier test to find out exactly where they stand in the AFC.
Here's what I'll be watching for:
1. Containing Watt. You can't miss the 6-foot-5, 295-pound Watt, but just because an opposing offense can identify where he lines up doesn't make him any easier to block. The Patriots offensive line has been outstanding for much of 2012, allowing just 19 sacks, the third-lowest total in the NFL. (Houston is tied for the league lead with 15 allowed.) Stopping Watt won't be a one-man job, as he commands a double-team block on many plays. He also aligns all over the front for Houston, meaning all five Patriots offensive linemen, plus tight ends and backs, must be prepared to counter him. With guard Logan Mankins making progress toward a return, the Patriots should be in better shape along the line than they have been in recent weeks.
2. Defending play-action. No opponent that the Patriots have or will face this regular season is more balanced than Houston, which leads to a steady dose of play-action passing throughout the course of the game. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork talked Thursday about how the Texans offensive line does well to keep a defense honest and the importance of relying on technique. That goes for the secondary and linebackers as well, who have to be mindful of not getting drawn toward the line of scrimmage while thinking a run is coming and then finding an open tight end or receiver down the field behind them. Quarterback Matt Schaub may not have the same passing totals as some of the elite signal-callers in the NFL, but he has shown in recent weeks that he can exploit a defense with the vertical passing game.
3. Good news on injury front, but what role will they play? Signs point to Mankins and rookie defensive end Chandler Jones returning to the lineup for the Patriots, which puts the team in a good spot along both sides of the line. Presumably, each will be reinserted into a starting role, although that remains unclear. More importantly, how healthy and effective will each be? Mankins may be called upon to contribute in the effort to deter Watt, and Jones faces a tough test against a stout Texans offensive line. The Patriots have picked up the pieces in both players' absences, but they will no doubt be happy to have Mankins and Jones back.
4. Johnathan Joseph and the Texans secondary. Will the Texans' top secondary player give it a go on Monday? That's a major question leading into the game, as a hamstring issue continues to bother the talented veteran. If Joseph in inactive, that puts a Houston secondary that has been struggling in recent weeks at a disadvantage against the potent Patriots passing attack. A week ago, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez served as the focal points of the passing game, and it would be no surprise to see that remain the case this week, regardless of whether Joseph plays. Provided the Patriots can protect Tom Brady -- a tall order this week -- look for the quarterback to have a big day against Houston's pass defense.
5. Gostkowski back on track? This is a factor to watch just as much in the next three games as it is in this one, as kicker Stephen Gostkowski needs to rediscover the groove he was in during the middle of the season. After missing kicks in three straight games, some are wondering whether the team is concerned with the seventh-year pro. He can quiet any doubters he might have by coming up with clutch kicks prior to the postseason and connecting on the kicks he should make. His misses of late have been on kicks he is fully capable of converting; it's time to see if he can make those going forward.