Week 14: Texans-Patriots preview

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

Houston at New England
Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass. - TV: ESPN
*TV announcers: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
*Keys to the game: The Texans are on the spot to prove their pass defense is better than showings against Jacksonville and Detroit indicated. New England's game plan will focus on isolating the Texans' linebackers against smaller, quicker receivers with short throws -- a near carbon copy of the recipe for the Patriots' success at Miami last week. The Texans are the fourth opponent in a row that operates a 3-4 base defense. TE Aaron Hernandez and WR Wes Welker are two very different players, but they're virtually interchangeable parts in the Patriots' precision passing game -- and the two Brady trusts most. Brady has completed at least 60 percent of his passes in all 11 games but a healthy dose of RB Stevan Ridley has helped significantly. The Texans can get heat on Brady, and after Miami posted four sacks last week, they have great confidence in finding weak spots in the same blocking scheme. Offensive line play helps separate Houston from the rest of the AFC. The Texans don't have to dominate or overpower the Patriots, just move and turn them enough to create a small lane for RB Arian Foster and Justin Forsett. Discipline is a must -- QB Matt Schaub thrives on play-action as teams gear up to stop Foster, and the Patriots are yielding 279.9 passing yards per game.
*Matchup to watch - Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips vs. Brady: Phillips has few peers among active coaches, but one of them is Bill Belichick, who has helped Brady and his offensive personnel think "two-sided" football. This week's standard written pre-game quiz is certain to feature plenty of questions rooted in blitz pickup and line communications preparing for Phillips.
*Player spotlight - Patriots RB Danny Woodhead: With Brandon Lloyd disappearing -- one catch for 10 yards last week -- and Julian Edelman (foot) sore leaving Miami, Woodhead could be in line for a greatly expanded role unless New England opts to consider a roster move.
*Fast facts: The Patriots have posted 12 consecutive winning seasons. ... Texans DE J.J. Watt is the first player in NFL history with at least 15 sacks and 15 deflections in a single season.
Houston hits the road for the fourth time in five weeks with a six-game winning streak and the inside track for home-field in the postseason. The Patriots, on a six-game roll of their own, do just enough to get Tom Brady the ball with the game on the line.
*Our pick: Patriots 23-22