NFL Preview - Houston (11-1) at New England (9-3)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A possible AFC Championship preview will headline Monday Night Football when the conference-leading Houston Texans visit the high- powered New England Patriots.
Both teams wrapped up playoff berths after wins in Week 13.
At 11-1, the Texans lead the AFC South by 2 1/2 games over upstart Indianapolis and could inch closer to a division title by beating the Patriots.
Houston won at Tennessee on Dec. 2 as the defense recorded six sacks and forced six turnovers. Leading the way was star defensive end J.J. Watt, who had a sack, forced a fumble and recorded two passes defensed, becoming the first player in NFL history with at least 15 sacks (16 1/2) and 15 passes defensed (15) in a single season.
"He's an incredible player," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said when discussing Watt. "He does pretty much everything for them."
Quarterback Matt Schaub completed 21-of-35 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns for the Texans against the Titans, while Arian Foster carried the ball 14 times for 38 yards and a touchdown and Lestar Jean added a 54-yard touchdown reception for Houston, which clinched its second consecutive playoff berth with the win.
"It's amazing. Last year we clinched and the players were euphoric, this year they expect to get there," Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said.
The Patriots, meanwhile, clinched the AFC East for the fourth consecutive year and ninth time in the past 10 seasons with a 23-16 win at Miami on Dec. 2. The division title was the 10th for Brady, the first signal-caller ever to reach double figures.
"We accomplished one of our goals this year, to be in the postseason," said New England coach Bill Belichick, who picked up his 201st career win, tying him with Dan Reeves for seventh place all-time. "That's good, but more importantly we just got to keep working to get better."
Brady was only 24-of-40 for 238 yards with one touchdown pass to Wes Welker and a rare interception.
Stevan Ridley, however, scored on a short touchdown run and picked up critical yards on a fourth-quarter drive to help the Pats prevail. Welker, meanwhile, had 103 yards on 12 grabs, tying Jerry Rice's NFL record for most games with 10-plus receptions at 17.
"It's a good feeling being able to win the division," said Belichick. "We'll turn the page here now and move on to Houston. They're a real good football team and it will be a big challenge for us."
The Texans and Patriots have met just three times before and only once in Foxboro, a 40-7 New England rout back in 2006. This, however, is a far different Houston team eager to prove it belongs among the NFL's elite.
"You've got one of the all-time great leaders in football from a coaching standpoint and a quarterback standpoint," Kubiak said when talking about the Patriots. "You know you're going to have to raise your level of play and play as good as you can possibly play. That's why we do what we do. It is a big challenge, but I know our football team will be looking forward to it."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Both teams bring imposing six-game winning streaks into the game and Houston has still yet to lose on the road this season (6-0).
New England, meanwhile, typically picks up the pace when the calendar turns to December and is on the verge on winning its 13th straight game in the month, something that would tie the 1968-72 Dallas Cowboys for the second-best December run in history.
The Pats lead the NFL in both points per game (35.8) as well as yards per game (426.3) but have taken another significant hit to their offense, losing jack of all trades Julian Edelman for the season to a foot injury.
A fixture on special teams, Edelman returned 17 punts for 263 yards and one touchdown this season but also caught 21 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns, and returned a fumble on a kickoff for a score.
Edelman is not nearly as important to the passing game as Welker, Aaron Hernandez or even a Brandon Lloyd but he did provide the kind of depth which is tough to match up with for opposing defenses when the Pats stretch the field.
And remember this injury comes on the heels of Rob Gronkowski's broken arm, which has the All-Pro sidelined, and a very banged-up offensive line.
New England filled Edelman's roster spot by re-signing veteran wideout Donte' Stallworth. The 32-year-old Stallworth attended training camp with the Pats this season but was released on Aug. 27. He also spent the 2007 season with the Patriots, registering 46 receptions for 697 yards and three touchdown
Of course Houston also has its injury issues and has been without defensive leader Brain Cushing for much of the season. The ailing unit will try to stop Brady despite missing cornerback Brice McCain (foot) and linebacker Brooks Reed (groin), who remain out. Meanwhile, All-Pro corner Johnathan Joseph and linebacker Bradie James are both probable but dealing with hamstring issues.
The Texans have allowed over 350 passing yards over the past three weeks so it will imperative for Watt to get heat on Brady. The favorite for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors, Watt is like "Where's Waldo" on the line, playing all three positions in Houston's base 3-4 scheme. The Wisconsin product has amassed an eye-popping 28 tackles for loss this season and 32 total quarterback hits.
"He certainly makes a lot of plays in the 3-4 defense," Belichick said. "He has excellent quickness, and he's long, so he does a good job of rushing against everybody -- the tackles, the guards. He also plays a lot of sub- defenses because they're in so much sub, where he's working on guards or occasionally on the center. He's a tremendous player, and he's had a lot of opportunities, and he's been very productive with them."
Watt, who has a sack in three straight games, trails only the 49ers' Aldon Smith (17 1/2) for the NFL lead and has his eyes set on former Giant Michael Strahan's single season record of 22 in 2001.
"He's not only very talented but he brings a passion, he brings a consistency week in, week out to how he prepares and how he goes about his job," Kubiak said. "We're very fortunate. We got a fine young man who is turning into a great, great player, hopefully for a long time."
The Texans also attempted to fortify the defensive backfield by bringing in veteran corner Stanford Routt, who had 21 tackles and two interceptions in seven games for the Kansas City Chiefs before being released in early November.
A Houston win here would all but lock up the No. 1 seed in the AFC for the Texans but a loss enables the Pats to close the gap for the AFC's best record to one game with three to play, while also giving New England the tiebreaker.
Needless to say the stakes are big.
"New England has obviously been an AFC power for a while," said Watt. "I know this game is going to be a big deal. We're going to prepare just like every other week with intensity, focus and drive. We're really excited about our chances."
Since the Patriots typically surge in December and are 10-1 in their last 11 Monday night contests, give New England a slight edge.
"This game is hugely important to our season," Brady said. "It's an AFC opponent that's 11-1. I think for us as a team, there's not really much more you could ask for than that: to play Monday Night Football in December against one of the best teams in the NFL."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 24, Texans 20
12/10 08:45:10 ET