With a two-game lead on the rest of the AFC, the Houston Texans could go a long way toward proving they're the team to beat this week.
The New England Patriots, though, certainly aren't ready to concede the conference they've represented in the Super Bowl five times in the last 11 years.
These powers each bring a six-game winning streak into Monday night's showdown in Foxborough, where Houston will put its unblemished road record on the line against the AFC East champions.
The Texans (11-1) and Patriots (9-3) have met only three times before - once at New England, where Houston lost 40-7 in 2006 - but a new rivalry could be about to develop, with the chance of a more important matchup in the upcoming playoffs.
"You've got one of the all-time great leaders in football from a coaching standpoint and a quarterback standpoint," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. "You know you're going to have to raise your level of play and play as good as you can possibly play. That's why we do what we do. It is a big challenge, but I know our football team will be looking forward to it."
In the franchise's first postseason appearance last season, Houston came close to earning a date with the Patriots in the AFC title game, but lost to Baltimore in the divisional round. Now, with Matt Schaub healthy and star defensive end J.J. Watt helping his unit overcome a slew of injuries, the Texans have taken another step forward.
They've shown their mettle with six road wins in as many trips, including games at Denver and Chicago.
With four contests still to play, they already have set a single-season franchise record with 11 victories following last Sunday's 24-10 win at Tennessee. Schaub threw a pair of touchdown passes and Watt had two sacks along with his 14th and 15th passes defensed, giving him more than twice as many as any other defensive lineman.
"He's an incredible player," Brady said. "He does pretty much everything for them."
Belichick joked that the Patriots would use brooms in practice to simulate Watt's long arms. The Texans may need their pass rush to disrupt Brady given the injuries in their secondary, with cornerback Brice McCain out and All-Pro Johnathan Joseph day to day after missing the last two games with a hamstring injury.
Linebacker Brooks Reed (groin) remains out, although Bradie James (hamstring) may return following a one-game absence.
Houston has allowed an average of 352.0 passing yards the last three weeks, a troubling trend before facing New England's high-powered attack.
"It's Monday and it's scary so I'm sure it's going to be real scary getting toward the end of the week," Kubiak said at the beginning of the week. "We know we're going to play a great player and one of the top passing games in the business for a long, long time."
The Patriots' offense was relatively quiet last weekend, but the team still beat Miami 23-16 to clinch its ninth division title in 10 years. Brady threw his first interception in six games and the Patriots gained a season-low 321 yards, but their 26th-ranked defense held the Dolphins to 277.
"When (the) offense struggles, it's a chance for us to showcase how special we are on the defensive end," tackle Vince Wilfork said. "Offense is OK to have a bad game here and there. They've done so much for us and one thing we want to do around here is we always want to play as a team."
With New England already adjusting to tight end Rob Gronkowski's absence, wide receiver Julian Edelman was lost for the season last week due to a foot injury. The Patriots re-signed receiver Donte' Stallworth on Tuesday.
Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez, though, may continue to pick up the slack. That duo combined for 20 catches and 200 yards against Miami, and Welker is back on top of the NFL with 92 receptions.
The last time the Patriots faced Houston, Welker tore his left ACL and MCL in a 34-27 loss in Week 17 of the 2009 season.
That game meant little to a New England team that had already clinched the East. Monday's contest is very significant if the Patriots hope to secure a first-round bye and perhaps home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
A win would pull them within one game of Houston while also giving them the tiebreaker, while a loss would all but lock up the No. 1 seed for the Texans, who would then have victories over all the other division leaders in the conference.
"This game is hugely important to our season," Brady said. "It's an AFC opponent that's 11-1. ... I think for us as a team, there's not really much more you could ask for than that: to play Monday Night Football in December against one of the best teams in the NFL and see what we're capable of."
The Patriots are 10-1 in their last 11 Monday night contests, with the wins coming by an average of more than 20 points.
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