The NFL schedule-makers and ESPN are given the tough task before the season of trying to project which teams will be good and worth watching for Monday Night Football games. Often those projections flop and viewers are stuck with a primetime game without much intrigue, but the NFL and ESPN couldn't dream up a better matchup in Week 14 than the Houston Texans and New England Patriots.
A pair of teams that have already clinched respective tickets to the playoffs, seeding is the new priority for both teams and Monday's game will certainly have seeding implications. With a win, the Texans can take a two-game lead over the entire AFC with three weeks to play and essentially waltz into a first-round bye and homefield advantage. However, if the Patriots win it'll be just one-game separating the Texans from the Patriots and Broncos.
Meet the Patriots
Tom Brady has been the story of the Patriots offensively for the last decade and it continues to be the same in 2012 as the two-time AP NFL MVP became the first quarterback in history to lead a team to 10 division titles. At 35-years old, he's logging yet another masterful season at the helm of the New England offense with 25 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Entering Week 14, he is just one of five NFL starting quarterbacks with a passer rating of 100 or higher.
He has been helped this season, though, by running back Stevan Ridley who already has more rushing yards in 2012 than any Patriots player has accumulated in a season since Corey Dillon in 2004. Ridley also entered the week with the second most touchdown rushes in the NFL, trailing only his Monday night opponent, Arian Foster.
While plenty has been going right for the No. 1 ranked New England offense, the defense has had some growing pains. The youthful group ranks in the top 10 against the run, but is the fourth worst group at defending the pass. With young talent like Chandler Jones and Tavon Wilson causing problems for opposing quarterbacks, there are some building blocks in place, but the pass defense is still a work in progress.
Meet the Texans
The Texans already have the most wins in a single-season in franchise history and have four more opportunities to add to that. There isn't much lacking for the well-rounded team that leans on running the ball and stopping the run to find success. The philosophy has worked well thanks to the success of Arian Foster, a fourth-year running back that leads the NFL in touchdowns with 13. He's not the only rusher that has had success for Houston either, as both Ben Tate and Justin Forsett have done well as change-of-pace backs for Foster.
All that production in the backfield has meant good things for quarterback Matt Schaub. Consistent as always, Schaub is on pace to finish his fifth consecutive season with a passer rating over 90, as his statistics change very little from season to season.
Perhaps the most impressive part about the Texans, though, is the defense led by defensive end J.J. Watt. The second-year defensive lineman entered Week 14 with the second-most sacks in the NFL at 16.5, but has garnered attention for his ability to swat passes at the line of scrimmage.
Local Takes: Patriots
Tony Santorsa from Pats Pulpit says that Monday's game is an opportunity for the Patriots to make a statement:
Ultimately what this comes down for the Patriots is that if they want to be the best, then they have to beat the best.
Houston is the best that the NFL has to offer and until the Patriots knock off an elite team like the Texans, they'll simply be slated in as a few steps behind the league's best-but that can all change with one victory Monday night.
Local Takes: Texans
TexansDC from Battle Red Blog says that the Texans will have to be careful when trying to pressure Tom Brady:
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Tom Brady has thrown 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions when defenses rush five or more defenders. Houston has blitzed on 43.7% of their defensive snaps, tops in the league. That is not to say that the Texans should not blitz. You can always blitz, so long as you get there. Unfortunately, this is something Houston has struggled with at times this season, but Wade will need, and should look, to mix up his looks often to keep the veteran Brady on his heels.
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Be sure to check out SB Nation's team blogs, Pats Pulpit and Battle Red Blog, for more analysis and highlights from the game.
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The game of the week by a longshot. The NFL's No. 1 offense (Patriots) faces the NFL's No. 2 offense (Texans). Houston's defense is ranked fourth, while New England's is 14th. The stats say this should be a terrific game with neither team having an obvious edge. A big game on a big stage, I'm rolling with the Pats.
The pick: 34-33, Patriots
Despite the lesser record, the Patriots are four-point favorites in most sportsbooks, according to OddsShark.
The Patriots will have another primetime game in Week 15 when the San Francisco 49ers travel to New England for another clash of playoff-bound teams, while the Texans will try and seal the AFC South with a home game against the Indianapolis Colts.