The stakes are high. The spotlight is bright. And the Texans – in their own calm, business-like way – are fired up for what's ahead.
The Texans (11-1) returned to practice on Thursday to begin preparing for the New England Patriots (9-3), who they'll face on Monday Night Football in Foxboro. It's a game that could very well determine the top seed in the AFC in the upcoming playoffs.
"It's big," said wide receiver Andre Johnson, the Texans' longest-tenured player. "We know how big it is. Biggest game in the history of this franchise. It'll be a big test for us, and we'll be ready to go."
ESPN, which will televise the game, sent a camera crew and reporter Bob Holtzman to Reliant Stadium for the day. They broadcast Texans coach Gary Kubiak's press conference live on ESPN, which was very likely a first. The Texans were on SportsCenter, NFL Live and other ESPN programming all day, which also rarely – if ever – happens.
Nothing will really matter until the playoffs, but this game could signify a changing of the guard of sorts in the AFC. The Patriots have won the AFC East division championship in nine of the last 10 years. They have five conference championships and three Super Bowl championships in the last 12 years. The Texans made the playoffs for the first time last season and just clinched their second-ever playoff berth on Sunday.
"Yeah, it's a bigger game than usual, because everybody knows what that team's reputation is and what they have done in the past in the playoffs," defensive end Antonio Smith said. "And we, as the Texans we are now, we want a legacy like that. We don't want to just be a one-hit wonder. We want to be able to have that kind of reputation and respect. So I think it's a great game to play at this time of year, at the end of the year. It's keeping you from looking forward or being comfortable from going in the playoffs, because this is a team that can likely turn around and beat you in the playoffs, so you've gotta come with it. And it's Monday Night Football."
This Monday night matchup also could be critical for playoff seeding. If the Texans win, they'll have at least a two-game lead on the rest of the AFC with three games remaining. Win one more of their final three games and they clinch the AFC. Win and they'll have a head-to-head sweep of (and tiebreaker over) Baltimore, Denver and New England, the three other division leaders in the conference.
"We've put ourselves in a tremendous position right now here for the rest of the season for the last four games," quarterback Matt Schaub said. "It's about how we take advantage of the position we've put ourselves in so we can be peaking and playing our best football as we get to the late part of December and into January."
The Texans already have more victories this season than any other in franchise history, and they still have four games to go. They're tied for the best record in the NFL and are perhaps two victories away from clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Texans coach Gary Kubiak is happy with how focused and level-headed his players have remained in what so far has been a season of unprecedented success.
"They've been good," Kubiak said. "We have a relatively young group of guys when it comes to playoff experience. About all the experience we have is what we got out of last year, but we have a very hungry group. We've been able to add a few guys to this team who have some experience when you talk about (SS Danieal) Manning and (CB Johnathan) Joseph, those types of things.
"One thing about playoff football in this business, once you taste it a little bit, it'll drive you for a long time. Hopefully, that's the case right here, because we're still a relatively young football team. They've been good. They've been all business."