When Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was asked this week how his unit would slow down the Texans' offense his answer was both frank and revealing: "Great question."
According to Football Outsiders, Houston is ranked 8th in the league in pass offense and 12th in rush offense. By the numbers, that's not other-worldly, but Arian Foster and Andre Johnson are. Which means that either is always a play away from taking one to the house. And this balance is what concerns Patricia.
“It goes back to Football 101,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich added via the Boston Herald. “If you can run the ball, it softens up coverage, and that’s when you hit those deep passes. You have to do a great job of preparing for Foster because he’s a great running back.”
Yes he is, leading the league in rushing a year ago.
And then there's Johnson, the Texans' first-round pick in 2003 who some people thought had lost a step this season. He proved the doubters wrong in the time it took him to take a quick pass and outrun the Jaguars defense 48 yards to the end zone for the game-deciding touchdown back in Week 11.
On Monday night, one of the Pats' newest members, cornerback Aqib Talib, will be responsible for keeping Johnson in check.
“When I was little, I wanted to come to the NFL, and play against the best receivers, the best the NFL had to offer,” Talib said Wednesday. “I was always a cornerback, and I always wanted to get my chance against the best.”
Well, Talib will get an early Christmas present because he'll go against one of the NFL's best in Johnson for the first time in his career.
"You always want to play against the best, know what I’m saying?” Talib said, “and as a team, we get to play against one of the best in the AFC, so I’m looking forward to it. …
“(Johnson's) one of the best at what he does,” he continued. “He really can do it all, from short routes, to deeper routes, run with the ball in the hands, go up and get the ball when it’s down the field. He can do it all.”
If Talib is able to win the matchup, it will allow the Patriots to focus their attention on stopping Foster, also no easy task. And it's that balance -- on both sides of the ball -- that has nose tackle Vince Wilfork gladly giving the Texans their due.
"They're the best team in the NFL," he conceded.
"They're the best team for a reason. They do a lot of things well," Wilfork said. "They've been in some blowouts, they've been in some tough games, they've been in some overtime [games]. This [is] a team that has played through it all. And they seem to rally around one another, and that's the sign of a great team. They definitely have what it takes to be a champion. You have to respect that."
Of course, there's a month left in the regular season. Once January rolls around, Wilfork may feel differently about which team is the NFL's best.