Who is the best team in the AFC?
The Houston Texans are 11-1 and have the best record.
The New England Patriots are the defending champs and have been rolling through teams with the best point differentials in the game.
Monday night they meet in Foxboro, Mass., to settle the question once and for all.
(Or maybe just until January.)
Here's everything you need to know about the game.
What it Means
Both teams are angling for the best possible seed in the playoffs.
The Texans can all but lock down the top overall seed with a win. They aren't likely to fall lower than second, however, even if they lose. While it's still mathematically possible for the Colts to win the division, they'd have to sweep Houston in the final three weeks to do it.
New England knows full well that a loss will drop them to fourth in the AFC. A win, and they are just a game back of Houston for the top overall slot.
Matchup to Watch
J.J. Watt versus Tom Brady
Under normal circumstances, this section would detail how Team A can scheme against the ferocious power that is Watt.
In this case, however, the matchup isn't defensive versus offensive lineman, but rather Watt versus one of the best offensive minds in history.
Brady is notoriously frustrating to sack. While some of that is outstanding protection, Brady also makes his reads quickly and releases the ball.
The Patriots want to throw in rhythm without giving the Texans' pass rush the chance to land.
Of course, anyone who has watched Houston this year knows Watt and friends love to bat down passes even when they can't land with the rush.
That's where the one-on-one matchup between Brady and Watt comes in. According to Reid Laymance of the Houston Chronicle, Brady has been practicing all week against players holding racquets in the air to simulate the length of the Texans' line.
Whether or not Watt gets to Brady a couple of times is not nearly as important as how Brady handles clouded sight lines and clogged passing lanes.
Stat that Matters
If you want to know who the best team in the NFL is, don't bother looking at the records. Schedules vary too much between teams, and there's so much randomness involved in close games, that a team's record can be misleading.
The real predictive power in the NFL isn't found in wins and losses, but in points scored and points allowed.
On that front, you won't find two more dominant teams than the Texans and Patriots.
New England has been 170 points better than its competition this year. That's better than two touchdowns every game.
Houston has the second-best point differential in the league at 130 points, nearly 11 points a game.
There's little question that these are the two most dominant teams in the NFL. While it's true they play in a thin conference that has put up precious little resistance, they've done the hard work of not only winning each week, but doing so by comfortable margins more often than not.
Biggest Advantage for the Texans
The Patriots are allowing 7.1 net yards per attempt, 28th in the NFL.
The Texans are in the top 10 in the league at 6.8 NY/A.
The Pats defense is easy to move the ball against, but it makes up for it by forcing a lot of turnovers. The Pats are second in the NFL with 33 takeaways.
That won't bother the Texans. Houston is fourth best in the league at protecting the ball.
That should neutralize the weapon the Pats use to negate long drives by the opposition.
Houston should be able to score liberally.
Biggest Advantage for the Patriots
The Patriots put up yards on offense like no team in football. They are first in yards/drive and points/drive.
Their biggest advantage is the ability to force Houston to play an up-tempo high-scoring game. When forced to abandon the run to keep up with the high-scoring Pats, the biggest weakness for the Texans gets exposed.
Houston relies so heavily on Andre Johnson in the passing game that if he can be neutralized at all, the Texans will struggle to score.
New England has many ways to attack in the passing game, but the Texans are far more limited.
Best Video Only Tangentially Related to the Game
Ah, Massholes. Language very NSFW, but also completely hilarious.
Houston Will Win If...
...they hit Tom Brady in the mouth.
Brady becomes very mortal when pressured. We've all seen the Super Bowl tapes of Brady writhing on the ground after being brutalized by the Giants.
That's what the Texans have to do Monday night. If they get to Brady, they will win.
New England Will Win If...
...the game gets into the 30s.
If this is a contest of who can score the most, the fastest, the Patriots are without peer. When the Pats offense gets chugging, nothing and no one can stop it.
If they quiet Watt, Houston can't win.
All the numbers point to the Patriots being the best team in football. When you watch them play, they certainly look like the best team in football.
If this game was being played in Houston, it would be a coin flip, but given the recent dominance of the Patriots, I can't see them losing at home.
A win for Houston would be an emphatic statement that they are going to play in New Orleans. Win or lose, that may still happen.
They'll have to beat the Patriots at some point, but that some point isn't this week.
New England 38, Houston 31
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