Game time: Monday, Dec. 10, 8:30 p.m. ET, Gillette Stadium
Weather: low-teens, clear
Records: Texans (11-1) at Patriots (9-3)
1. Can New England slow up Houston's JJ Watt?
It will be a great test for an offensive line that has done a good but not great job of protecting Tom Brady this season. We talked about it all last week, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called Watt "a great player, wherever they line him up." But the problem isn't just Watt, the pass rusher, he has an uncanny knack to always be around the ball, usually in the form of a batted pass. It was why Brady thought the Pats might practice with rackets to simulate Watt's big paws. If the offensive line can give Brady time, however, the Texans' secondary is banged up, which could open things up in the passing game.
2. How will the Pats slow Arian Foster?
In terms of this team's postseason aspirations, the defense's progress is arguably more important than the offense's. That's not to say New England can win without its offense showing up; just the opposites, actually. If the offense plays at an average level, the defense will need to be better than it has for most of the season. Upside: the unit is much improved over a year ago, and recent addition cornerback Aqib Talib has a lot to do with that. But the playoffs will feature tougher competition that the Pats face in the AFC East, and given the time of year, the running games (or stopping them) become more important. New England has been very good in that regard (they're 7th in the league in rush defense, according to Football Outsiders -- and 22nd against the pass), though the Texans' offensive line and Foster should give everybody a sense of just how good.
3. The Patriots' destiny is in their hands.
Thanks to the Redskins beating the Ravens in overtime, New England can earn the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a first-round bye. The mind-bending specifics of the playoff situation, via ESPNBoston.com's Field Yates: "Though the Patriots entered Week 14 play with the tiebreaker over the Ravens in a three-team knot for the two seed, the possibility remained for both teams to finish 13-3 in the regular season. Because the Ravens play the Broncos in Week 15, Baltimore running the table would have meant knocking the Broncos out of the race for the No. 2 seed, potentially making the two-seed tiebreaker a head-to-head situation with the Patriots, which the Ravens would win because they defeated New England back in Week 3."
If the Pats can win Monday night, and again next week against the 49ers, they'll be in the driver's seat heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.