The Patriots are going to need a balanced ground game led by Stevan Ridley to be successful against the Texans. (Steve Balestrieri photo)

The New England Patriots (9-3) return home to face the Houston Texans (11-1) on Monday Night Football, Houston, are owners of the AFC’s best record and arguably the most balanced team on both sides of the ball in the league.

The Patriots have won 6 in a row and have clinched the AFC East for the 4th consecutive season and 10th time in the last 12 years. The Texans also come in winners of 6 in a row and have clinched a playoff spot.

This one has been circled since the schedules came out earlier this year, so we can skip the further hyperbole and go straight to the matchups.

Patriots Running Game:
The Patriots have been running the ball very effectively this season and last week closed the game in Miami out by running the ball down the Dolphins throat eating up over seven minutes of the clock. Stevan Ridley went over 1000 yards for the first time in his career and is ably backed up by Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden is off of suspension and able to come back now as well.

Houston boasts one of the best run defenses in the league; they play an aggressive 3-4 defense under Wade Phillips. Shaun Cody is their NT and he’s flanked by Antonio Smith and DPOY candidate J.J. Watt. The Texans only allow 87.6 yards per game rushing which is outstanding.

Even though they’re banged up at the linebacker position, Brian Cushing is injured and Bradie James and Tim Dobbins are both playing hurt, they will not be easy to run against. Last week they held Tennessee’s Chris Johnson to only 51 yards.

With a banged up offensive line missing Guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly, it will be tough sledding against this group. I don’t expect the Patriots to be able to run very effectively unless they start getting a lot of success in the air.

Texans Running Game:
Houston boasts an outstanding running game featuring Arian Foster, Ben Tate and Justin Forsett. Their offensive line is very good with Wade Smith and Duane Brown on the left side, Derrick Newton and Ben Jones on the right side with Chris Myers at center. They execute a very effective zone blocking scheme that is tough to stop.

The Patriots still possess a top 10 run defense and will counter with Vince Wilfork at the point of attack and run stuffer Brandon Spikes at MLB. Spikes will have his hands full trying to stop the potent Houston rushing attack. But if Wilfork can slow things up at the line, that is when Spikes along with Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower are at their most effective.

How effective the running game is will have a big impact on how the passing game turns out since the Texans are one of the best play-action pass teams in the league.

 Patriots Passing Game:
The Patriots offense is missing a lot of key components with TE Rob Gronkowski out with a broken arm and Julian Edelman being placed on IR this week with a broken foot that will require surgery. The team just brought back Donte’ Stallworth who is familiar with the offense and was in all of training camp before being let go.

But Tom Brady still has Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez inside with Brandon Lloyd to the outside and they can throw to Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead out of the backfield. So, although not with all of their weapons, the Patriots still possess plenty of weapons for Brady to throw to.

The Texans are far from 100 percent physically either, their linebacking corps is banged up, Brian Cushing is lost for the year, and Bradie James, Tim Dobbins and Brooks Reed are all hurting as well. Their secondary is not healthy either, Jonathan Joseph, their top corner has been out but is expected to play but how effective he is with a bad hamstring will bear watching. His back up Brice McCain is out for up to 6 weeks.

The Patriots employ the type of passing game that gives the Texans fits as Brady likes to spread out the field and throw the ball quickly before they can bring their pass rush to bear. With banged up linebackers and corners, they may attack the underneath area in the middle of the field.

But they must stop not only Watt but other very good edge rushers in Brooks Reed, Connor Barwin and Whitney Mercilus. Watt is a game plan onto himself, he plays mainly a 5 technique at left DE but on sub-packages can move inside and sometimes can shift over the right side, so he isn’t just one person’s responsibility and he’s the most disruptive player in the game today.

Not only does he have 15.5 sacks, but he’s also deflected or batted down 15 more passes. This area like the next one is one of the more intriguing matchups of the year so far.

Texans Passing Game:
Matt Schaub
and the Texans have an excellent passing game with plenty of weapons to attack any portion of the field. Andre Johnson is one of the best in the business and has the size, and speed to torch defenses at any time.

Because of the success of their running game, Schaub is one of the best in the business at play-action passing and he can look to Johnson, Owen Daniels at tight end, James Casey or the very underrated Kevin Walter. Foster has caught 30 passes out of the backfield as well.

One thing the Patriots will have to be aware of and stop is the roll out pass where Schaub has a clear path to throw down the field. The Texans protection has been very solid this season, allowing only 15 sacks. DEs Rob Ninkovich and Trevor Scott will have to keep Schaub inside the pocket and not allow him to get outside the pocket.

The Patriots traditionally try to take away opponents best offensive weapon, so I would be very surprised if they don’t double up Johnson with Aqib Talib and over the top with safety help. In this game, the guys that will have a big effect on the outcome of this one will be Walter and Daniels.

Walter is the perfect foil for the Patriots defense and will be a big matchup for them as will be Daniels at the tight end slot. Walter will probably be singled up and the secondary will have to have a big game to take away his intermediate routes. Daniels is a very good receiver at the tight end position, a place where the Patriots have struggled in the past.

Special Teams:
Just as the Patriots return game was getting a boost from Julian Edelman he got hurt in Miami and is out for this game (listed now as on IR), those duties will undoubtedly fall to Wes Welker and possibly Woodhead in the interim and we may even see Stallworth doing some of that soon. He worked on that in training camp and has done that before, albeit quite a few years ago.

Kick returner Devin McCourty has been ok but not great lately and that is still an area of concern going forward. Zoltan Mesko is having another solid season for the Pats in the punting game but Stephen Gostkowski has shown more inconsistency than in any year since arriving.

For Houston, Shayne Graham is also struggling somewhat in the kicking game while punter Donnie Jones is averaging 46.7 yards per punt with 24 downed inside the 20 yard line. Keshawn Martin is the primary return man for kickoffs and punts and is doing a solid job with a couple of nice returns in each.

“X”- Factors:
Some interesting factoids for this week:
This ends a tough stretch for Houston where they’ve been on the road for three weeks in a row but have won their last six games, the same as the Patriots.

New England has the top third down offense in the league; Houston has the top third down defense in the league.

Conclusions/Prediction:
This game and the one next week have been circled since the schedule came out as the biggest games of the year and it promises to be a great game. The Texans are arguably the most balanced team in the league and haven’t lost since dropping a game against Green Bay in mid-October.

The Patriots haven’t lost since the same week and are scoring points at a near historic rate. Prior to the Miami game, New England was on pace to break their own record for points in a season. They’re still on pace for another 500 point season which would be their fourth. More on that is in Kerry Byrne’s always excellent column in Cold Hard Football Facts.

Both teams are a bit banged up, Houston on defense and the Patriots on offense. I think this one will be close, this is a big game for the conference as Houston wants to keep its conference lead and the Patriots are hoping to overtake them. Each is trying to earn the first-round bye that is always so important come playoff time.

I think the Patriots will do a decent job of stopping Andre Johnson, they always try to take away opponents best weapon and they’ll no doubt double him. But Walter and Daniels will be the key passing weapons for Houston. How they fare will go a long way in deciding this game.

With banged up linebackers and secondary, it will be interesting to see how the Texans use Jonathan Joseph who still isn’t 100 percent physically. They could opt to put him on Wes Welker and try to take away Tom Brady’s best weapon.

The Patriots will probably attempt to work the middle of the field and test the inside linebackers and slot where the Texans are hurting. Brady’s biggest strength is getting the ball out quickly to negate the pass rush. He’ll have to be on top of that this week as Houston is excellent at rushing the QB. Bill Belichick has had the scout team this week using tennis rackets when trying to bat down passes, an area that the Texans are superb in.

Some of the keys from a Patriots perspective this week include:

  • Keep balance offensively- The Patriots are going to have to find a way to run the ball effectively in this one. Keep the downs and distances short and makeable and not have to rely on long developing plays to move the ball
  • Protect Brady and give him clear lanes to throw the ball- No one is better than Watt and batting down passes and getting to the QB. The flip side of this is, Brady has to get rid of the ball quickly.
  • Stop the run and force Houston to throw- Sounds strange for a team that’s had its issues with their pass defense but it is true. Stopping Foster is key for the defense Houston and Schaub are at their best when using play-action. Which leads into…
  • Don’t Bite- (Thanks to DerekH!) The linebackers can’t bite on play-action or it will leave the tight ends and underneath receivers with large gaps to work in.

This one should come down to the final quarter, Brady is at the top of his game and at home, coupled with the fact that Houston is a banged up unit and finishing up a three game road trip will result in a tough, close win for the home team. Patriots 27-24.