Commentary

Patriots-Texans has plenty to offer

'Monday Night' clash of AFC titans brings no shortage of compelling storylines

Updated: December 6, 2012, 1:49 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

During some weeks of the NFL season, a few days can be spent dissecting a game before moving on to previewing the next one on the schedule. Then there are other weeks when the page gets turned quicker because of the anticipation of what's ahead.

When it comes to the 9-3 New England Patriots, the current snapshot falls into the second category. Sunday's hard-earned victory over the Miami Dolphins, which clinched the AFC East championship, was nice. But it's already in the rearview mirror because of the highly anticipated "Monday Night Football" clash with the 11-1 Houston Texans on Dec. 10 at Gillette Stadium (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET).

The combined 20-4 record of both teams ties for the best in "Monday Night Football" history when each team has played at least 12 games, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

Some might say it's too early to preview a game, but given all the angles that come with Texans-Patriots, we'd strongly counter that line of thinking. It sounds like Bill Belichick agrees.

"They're a real good football team and it will be a big challenge for us this week," Belichick said Monday. "We have a little extra time to prepare for them, which I'm sure we'll need."

Texans coach Gary Kubiak echoed those thoughts when asked on Monday about the Patriots' offense.

"We know we're going to play a great player [Tom Brady] and one of the top passing games in the business for a long, long time. It's a challenge," he said.

With this being the 13th game on the schedule for both clubs, here are 13 layers of the matchup that intrigue us:

1. Road dominance versus home dominance: The Texans are 6-0 on the road this season, the only NFL team with a perfect mark away from home in 2012. But beating the Patriots at home is no easy task. Since 2002, the Patriots' regular-season record at home is an NFL-best 71-14. This marks the Texans' third road game in three weeks, and according to the Elias Sports Bureau, only five teams have won three road games in three weeks since 2000.

[+] EnlargeJJ Watt
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsWith 15.5 sacks and 15 passes defended, J.J. Watt is a handful.

2. How do you block J.J. Watt? Had the 2011 draft unfolded as some analysts predicted, defensive lineman J.J. Watt would have been playing in New England, not Houston. Watt's name was linked to the Patriots as much as anyone on the mock-draft circuit, but he never made it to the 17th overall selection as the Texans swooped in at No. 11. If the draft was held again today, the 6-foot-5, 295-pound Watt would be worthy of a No. 1 overall selection. He's that good, a disruptive presence rushing the passer (16.5 sacks, nine of which have come on the road) and batting down passes (credited with 15 passes defended). "They move him a little bit inside and outside [so] we're going to have to have more than one guy ready to handle him and block him," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Monday. "It won't just fall to the guard or the tackle. It could be anybody at times, based on the way they play him."

3. Brady against the blitz: The Texans blitz more than any team in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking, as they've sent five or more rushers 43.7 percent of the time this season. But Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is lethal against the blitz, having thrown 15 touchdowns and no interceptions this season against five or more rushers. It's a matchup of strength versus strength. Something has to give.

4. Tom Brady versus Matt Schaub: Brady's well-earned, well-established reputation is that he's a winner, but did you know that Texans quarterback Matt Schaub is 18-4 in his past 22 starts since 2011, which is the best mark in the NFL over that time?

5. NFL's top turnover teams: Belichick often says that outside of points, no statistic correlates more to winning than turnovers. No surprise here -- the Patriots lead the NFL with a plus-24 differential, while the Texans were tied for second at plus-14. The Texans have taken exceptional care of the football (just 12 turnovers). The Patriots are one of just three teams better than the Texans in that area, having turned the ball over just nine times.

6. Can Texans' cornerbacks hang? On Monday, the Texans placed fourth-year slot cornerback Brice McCain (foot) on injured reserve (designated to return), which thins their depth and creates a potential mismatch in favor of the Patriots with receiver Wes Welker in the slot. For the Texans, this shines a brighter spotlight on 2011 second-round draft choice Brandon Harris, who projects to play in the slot. Starter Johnathan Joseph also has been slowed by a hamstring injury. If any team can exploit a weakness at cornerback, it's the Patriots.

7. No. 1 offense versus No. 2 offense: Scoreboard operators come to the stadium knowing they'll usually get a workout when these teams play. The Patriots are averaging an NFL-best 35.8 points per game. The Texans are second in the NFL, averaging 29.25 points per game.

[+] EnlargeGary Kubiak
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesTexans coach Gary Kubiak has a different approach with the media than counterpart Bill Belichick.

8. Bill Belichick and Gary Kubiak -- a clash in approaches: Under Belichick, the Patriots favor the tight-lipped "less is more" philosophy when it comes to information dissemination. The approach has worked for them and is tied to Belichick's belief of protecting competitive advantage at every turn. Under Kubiak, the Texans are at the opposite end of the spectrum, as evidenced by Kubiak's detailed injury breakdown on Monday that included information such as linebacker Brooks Reed (groin) still needing more time before returning to the field and specifics on surgery for McClain having a screw inserted into his foot. The approach has worked for them and serves as a reminder that there is more than one way to handle team business; two good coaches who go about things differently.

9. Aqib Talib factor for Patriots -- Talib versus Andre Johnson: Maybe it's coincidence, maybe it's more a result of the opponents they faced, or maybe Aqib Talib is simply that much of a difference-maker. Consider this: Before acquiring Talib at the trade deadline Nov. 1, the Patriots rushed five or more defenders a league-low 15 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking. With Talib, the number of rushes with five or more defenders has spiked to 28.3 percent. A potential Talib matchup against Texans receiver Andre Johnson naturally yields excitement.

10. Third-down -- the game within the game: One of the primary factors in the Patriots' offensive success has been third-down efficiency, as they are converting an NFL-best 52.6 percent of the time. Welker often shows up on those crucial plays, as 25 of his 92 receptions have come on third down (No. 3 in NFL). Yet the Texans' defense is at its best on third down, ranking first in the league in holding opponents to a 28.4 percent success rate. Another strength-on-strength matchup.

11. Arian Foster versus Stevan Ridley: Texans running back Arian Foster might not be producing big results between the tackles as consistently as he has in the past, but no one questions his overall production. Foster ranked fifth in the NFL with 1,102 rushing yards and has scored a touchdown in seven straight road games. Second-year Patriots running back Stevan Ridley isn't far behind (No. 7, 1,010 yards). Of Ridley's 225 carries, 159 have come against sub defenses (five or more defensive backs), which is a league high and reflects how the Patriots have a rushing attack that can make opponents pay when they go small.

12. Kickers shared the same locker room: If the game comes down to a field goal, which kicker inspires more confidence? New England's Stephen Gostkowski has had an up-and-down year, while Houston's Shayne Graham knows a thing or two about kicking at Gillette Stadium as he was Gostkowski's replacement halfway through the 2010 season when Gostkowski tore his quad. Both are connecting on 80 percent of their field-goal attempts, which is below the league average.

13. Rising up in the national spotlight: The Patriots have played a lot of big games over the past decade, and are 10-1 in their past 11 games on "Monday Night Football." The Texans are more of the up-and-comer; how do they respond on the national stage?

It's for these reasons, and more, that Monday promises to be one of the more memorable games of the season.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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