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Five things to watch: Texans at Patriots

Posted Dec 10, 2012

Here are five things to watch when the Texans (11-1) take on the New England Patriots (9-3) at Gillette Stadium on Monday Night Football.


HHere are five things to watch when the Texans (11-1, 4-0 AFC South) take on the New England Patriots (9-3, 5-0 AFC East) at Gillette Stadium on Monday Night Football in Week 14. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. CT.

(Note: All stats and rankings in this article as of games played before Week 14)

1. Top offenses: The NFL’s top two scoring offenses will be on display on Monday night, making for a potential shootout in primetime.

The weather in Foxboro at kickoff is projected to be 56 degrees with a 10 percent chance of rain and 14 mph winds. There’s a 90 percent chance of rain by 11 p.m. ET, which will be near the end of fourth quarter. The last time the Texans played in similar conditions, they won a 13-6 slugfest against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Regardless of the weather, this game figures to play out much differently.

The Patriots rank first in offense in both scoring (35.8 points/game) and yards (426.3). The Texans rank second in scoring (29.3) and fourth in yards (389.6). Both offenses are extremely balanced, as the Texans (2, 4, 10, 6) and Patriots (1, 1, 6, 8) are the only two teams in the NFL who rank in the top-10 offensively in scoring, yards, passing and rushing.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is a leading NFL MVP candidate with 3,537 passing yards, 25 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Texans quarterback Matt Schaub hasn’t been too shabby himself, with 3,062 yards, 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Schaub 15-1 in his last 16 starts and 18-4 since 2011, the best winning percentage (.818) of any quarterback in the NFL since last season. He is 9-2 on the road since 2011, including 6-0 this season, with 19 touchdowns, six interceptions and a 97.2 passer rating.

The Texans rank 17th in passing defense (235.0). The Patriots rank 29th (279.9). Don’t be surprised to see a big night from Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson, who has averaged an NFL-best 99.1 receiving yards per game in the months of December and January since 2007.

2. Texans secondary: The Texans have had a litany of injuries at the cornerback position in recent weeks. They’ll get Pro Bowler Johnathan Joseph back from a two-game absence on Monday but are still banged up overall as a group.

Brice McCain, the Texans’ nickel corner, is on injured reserve with a foot injury. Alan Ball, who started for Joseph two weeks ago, is questionable to play on Monday with a foot injury. That means second-year corners Brandon Harris and Roc Carmichael and newly-signed veteran Stanford Routt will likely be put to the test against Brady and the Patriots’ high-octane passing attack.

Harris will most likely be the Texans’ starter at nickel, meaning he’ll face off with Pro Bowl wide receiver Wes Welker at various points in the game. A 2011 second-round pick from Miami (Fla.), Harris has played in only four games this season and 11 games in his young career.

Carmichael played extensively on defense last Sunday after previously appearing in only one game in his career. Routt, a tall, rangy corner who spent seven seasons with the Oakland Raiders and part of this season with the Kansas City Chiefs, was signed on Tuesday to take McCain’s spot on the roster.

“These guys spread the field as good as anybody,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. “They get the ball out as quick as anybody. The guy that gets that out (Brady) is as good as anybody that’s ever played. It’s a tremendous challenge for our team. We understand that. It’s going to be about team defense for us.”

The Texans’ front seven could be critical helping the secondary. Defensive end J.J. Watt has been a one-man wrecking crew with 16.5 sacks and 15 passes defensed. Defensive end Antonio Smith and rookie outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus rank second on the team with five sacks apiece. The Patriots practiced with racquetball paddles at the line of scrimmage this week to prepare for Watt and the Texans defense’s pass-swatting ways.

“We’re playing a great quarterback, and we need to put pressure on him,” Watt said. “I’ve put it on myself and we’ve put it on ourselves as a defensive line to be able to do that... We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

3. Third down: Nobody is better at third-down offense than the Patriots. Nobody is better at third-down defense than the Texans. Just how important will third down be on Monday night?

“It’s the difference between winning and losing,” Smith said. “I truly believe that if we can get ‘em out on third downs, we’ll win the game. If they pick up third downs, they’ll win the game. That’s usually how a team gets beat is giving an offense more chances to score, but if you get ‘em off the field, how can they score?”

The Patriots rank first in third-down percentage, converting first downs 52.63 of the time. The Texans rank first in defensive third-down percentage, allowing first downs only 28.4 percent of the time. Brady is notoriously effective against the blitz. The Texans are notorious for blitzing under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

In 135 offensive series, the Patriots have had just 12 three-and-outs, fewest in the NFL. Their three-and-out percentage is 8.9. The Texans have forced an NFL-high 67 third-and-10-plus situations this season. They have forced 43 three-and-outs, which ranks second in the NFL.

“You have to get them off the field somehow,” Kubiak said. “First off, you have to get this team in third downs, and the thing they’re so successful at is all their third downs are manageable. You will not see them in third and long very often. Tom has got them on schedule the majority of the time, so (third down) will be huge for us.”

4. Turnovers: The Texans are one of the best teams in the NFL at protecting the ball and forcing turnovers. The Patriots have been even better.

New England leads the NFL by a wide margin with a 24 turnover differential. They have forced 33 turnovers, which ranks third, and committed only nine, which ranks first.

The Texans are tied for second in turnover margin at 14. They have forced 26 turnovers and committed only 12. They forced a franchise-record six turnovers and did not turn the ball over at all last week at Tennessee. Ball security will be especially vital in the hostile confines of Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots are 71-14 since 2002.

“Everybody who’s went in there and helped them by turning the ball over has been in some big trouble,” Kubiak said. “We got back to protecting the ball last week, which we’ve done pretty good. It’s going to be extremely important this week.”

5. Ball control: The Texans lead the league in time of possession at an average of 34:07 per game. Establishing their running game and controlling the clock on Monday could well be the best defense for Brady.

Texans running back Arian Foster, who has 1,102 rushing yards and a league-high 15 touchdowns this season, has rushed for more than 100 yards in five of six road games this season. Counting playoffs, Foster has topped 100 rushing yards in eight of nine national TV outings in his career. He averages 120.4 rushing yards (5.4 per carry) and one rushing touchdown in those nine games. He had 119 rushing yards and two touchdowns against the Patriots in 2009 in the first start of his career.

Foster had just 34 carries in the last two games after averaging 24.9 carries through 10 games.

“The thing about Arian is he just seems to get better as the game goes,” Kubiak said. “He did not carry the ball as much the last two weeks as he has in the past. I think he’s more fresh right now than he has been coming out of that tough Jacksonville-Detroit situation we had. I watched in practice this week, and I think he’s really taken another step forward. I think he’s feeling pretty good.”

It will be interesting to see how the Texans’ running game and offense in general is affected by injuries. Starting right tackle Derek Newton (knee) is out for the second consecutive game, while tight end Garrett Graham (concussion) is also out this week. The last time the Texans were down a tight end, Ryan Harris played extensively as a third tackle at Chicago. Harris is starting this week, meaning tackle Andrew Gardner or rookie guard Brandon Brooks could see more playing time. Fullback Tyler Clutts could play more as well to give starting fullback James Casey a chance to play more tight end.

Twitter.com/NickScurfield

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