Houston Texans (11-1) at New England Patriots (9-3)
1. J.J. Watt has an admirer in a hoodie
Bill Belichick doesn't have a vote for defensive player of the year, but if he did, the Patriots coach would cast it for J.J. Watt, Houston's second-year defensive end, who has 16.5 sacks and 15 pass deflections. Belichick gushed over Watt during a conference call with Houston media this week.
"He's the most disruptive player in the league, certainly, that we've seen," Belichick said. "It's not just the pass rush. It's batted balls. It's tackles for losses, and the blocking that he draws helps everybody else out. He's been a terrific player for them in a lot of ways."
The 6-foot-5 Watt, whose arms seem to be as long as broomsticks, is the only player in NFL history to record at least 15 sacks and 15 passes defensed in the same season (Reggie White had 15 sacks and 13 pass deflections in 1991 for the Eagles). Watt also leads the Texans with 60 tackles, including 28 for losses, has 32 quarterback hits and two fumble recoveries.
A first-round draft pick out of Wisconsin last year, Watt was the AFC's defensive player of the month for September. He has been nicknamed "J.J. Swatt" because of his ability to knock down passes. Five of his deflections have been picked off by teammates, with four of the turnovers leading to touchdowns.
Watt's proclivity for blocking passes surely will be on New England quarterback Tom Brady's mind Monday night.
"Well, you can't throw it through him," Belichick said. "Sometimes, quarterbacks just can't get it around him. We're going to have to be conscious of that when we throw the ball, making sure we get it past the line of scrimmage."
2. Someone to count on
The temperature has dropped, Christmas lights have been put up, and Wes Welker leads the league in receptions. Some things never seem to change.
The NFL's poster boy for non-drafted players who became superstars, the 5-9 Welker has caught 92 passes for 1,064 yards and four touchdowns. A four-time Pro Bowl selection who is closing in on 100 receptions for the fifth time in his career, Welker led the league in receptions in 2011 and 2009, tied for the lead in 2007 and was second in 2008.
Almost since the day the Patriots acquired Welker in a trade with Miami, the diminutive wideout has been quarterback Tom Brady's go-to guy.
"There's nothing more important in Wes' life than being a football player and thinking about football and making the big play and running the right routes and getting open when it's most important," Brady told reporters this week. "That's what quarterbacks dream about too -- having receivers that do that."
It's hard to believe that Welker didn't have a catch as a rookie in 2005, when he played one game for San Diego and 14 for Miami. The Chargers deserve credit for signing him as a free agent out of Texas Tech. They also deserve criticism for waiving him after only one regular season game.
3. Stingy in the red zone
The Texans defense has been fierce inside its own 20-yard line. That's where opposing offenses go to sputter, backfire and run out of gas.
Houston has allowed a league-low 114 points inside the red zone. Opponents have reached that section of the field a league-low 27 times, and the Texans have given up only 12 touchdowns.
Here's one example of how the Texans have put up a front inside their 20. In a Week 9 victory over Buffalo, the Bills had 1st-and-10 situations at Houston's 19-, 12- and 14-yard line on consecutive series near the end of the first half, but came away with only two field goals. In the second half, Buffalo never reached the red zone.
"We're not in the red zone that much," Texans linebacker Brooks Reed said earlier this season, "but we take pride in [stopping opponents] when we have to."
The Patriots rank third in the league in red zone offense, having scored 37 touchdowns in 56 opportunities (66.1 percent). How efficient they are inside Houston's 20 will be a big factor in Monday night's outcome.
Now in his ninth season, the Patriots defensive lineman has played 146 games, including 136 starts, even though he plays one of the most physical positions in the game. He is a four-time Pro Bowl selection and is in his fifth straight season as a team co-captain. Here is an excerpt from his chat with SI.com.
Is Monday night's game bigger for the Texans or the Patriots?
I think it's a big game for both teams, being that you have two football teams with great organizations. The bad thing about it is somebody has to lose. It's going to be a pretty good matchup, and may the best man win.
Are you more concerned about the passing of Matt Schaub or the running of Arian Foster?
(Laughs) Both. This is a well-put-together offense. Andre Johnson is one of the best receivers to play the game. With Arian Foster and [Ben] Tate, they can run the ball. They have good tight ends. Then you have an offensive line that has done a phenomenal job, whether it's in the passing game or the running game. They do a heck of a job protecting Schaub and opening holes for Foster and those backs.
Some people thought the sky was falling in Foxboro after the Patriots lost two of their first three games, but here they are, AFC East champs again. How do you do it year after year?
Hard work and dedication. One thing the team does well is we don't listen to outside critics. We believe in one another in that locker room, we believe in the organization. This organization has done a real good job of winning over the past decade. There's always stuff about us having our back against the wall, but somehow we find a way to pull games out and have winning seasons.
You're in your ninth NFL season and much of that time you played at nose tackle. That's a lot of double-teams, cut blocks and everything else an opponent might try on you. How have you managed to stand up to all the punishment?
I've been a defensive lineman my whole life, so it's not the first time I've seen cuts and double-teams. It's having the satisfaction of winning games, having guys around you make plays and being part of the success. When you can take up two players, sometimes three players, and you have a big play on defense, a lot of people might look at the person making the play, but the real football guys know where it all started from -- that guy who was taking the double- and triple-team for the [other] guy to make the play. It's not easy, but at the same time you reap the benefits because it's always good to have your linebackers say, "Thank you for the double-team."
Last season, you had the first two picks of your career and recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown -- things a D-lineman doesn't normally do. What got into you?
Good karma, I guess. It was funny because before the season I talked to a good friend of mine, [Hall of Fame defensive lineman] Cortez Kennedy, and he was talking about scoring touchdowns, interceptions and all that stuff. Then I go out and get two interceptions and a touchdown. It was just one of those things. Plays come and go. Sometimes I make a lot of plays, sometimes I don't make many plays ... but I'm one of the biggest team players you'll ever meet. I love making plays, but I'd rather the team be successful.
Tom Brady has played in 195 NFL games (including playoffs), yet he has faced a Wade Phillips-coached defense only three times -- twice when Phillips was defensive coordinator of the Chargers and once when he was head coach of the Cowboys. Now in his second year as Houston's defensive coordinator, Phillips will match wits with Brady again on Monday night. Here is how Brady has done in his previous three games against Phillips.
This game will match teams that have won six games in a row and could wind up as the top two seeds in the AFC playoffs. The Texans have clinched a postseason spot but are still working on winning their second straight AFC South title. With their 23-16 win over Miami last week, the Patriots claimed the AFC East championship for the fourth season in a row and the ninth time in the last 10 years.
This will be the last of three consecutive away games for Houston, the only team that hasn't lost on the road this season (6-0). A victory over New England would give the Texans a franchise-high 12 regular season wins. But they will face a huge challenge playing in Foxboro, where no road team has won in December since the Jets on Dec. 22, 2002.
Quarterback Matt Schaub, who has come back from a foot injury that forced him to miss the final six games of the regular season and two playoff contests last year, has led the Texans to victories in 15 of his last 16 starts. During that span, he has completed 325 of 504 passes for 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Brady, his opposite number, has been exceptional, as usual. He has completed 64 percent of his passes and thrown for 25 touchdowns this season. Only four of his 460 passes have been intercepted. But when Brady throws 40 or more times in a game, the Patriots are 1-3 this season.
To win, New England needs to have some success against Houston's stout run defense, which ranks second in the league and has allowed a league-fewest two rushing touchdowns.
Patriots 27, Texans 23Last week: Packers 30, Vikings 20Season record: 8-5