BOSTON (CBS) — This promises to be a good one.

The 11-1 Texans travel to Foxboro to take on the 9-3 Patriots with the whole football world tuned in on Monday night. The winner could very well lay claim to being the best the AFC has to offer as the NFL season heads into the final stretch.

“We know how big it is,” Texans receiver Andre Johnson said this week. “Biggest game in the history of the franchise.”

Obviously, the loser won’t go home for the rest of the winter, but the matchup promises to provide a playoff-type atmosphere at Gillette Stadium. Which team eventually comes out on top is anyone’s guess, but here are a few things to watch for in Monday night’s Patriots-Texans game.

(All stats and rankings based on players’ and teams’ places entering Week 14.)

Strength Meets Strength
Just 92 yards separate Arian Foster and Stevan Ridley, who rank fifth and seventh respectively in the NFL in rushing yards this season. Ridley has a 0.6-yard edge in yards per carries, while Foster’s found his way into the end zone 13 times compared to Ridley’s nine scores.

There’s no doubt that two very capable running backs will carry the bulk of the load on Monday night, but it’s sure to be tough sledding for both of them as they go up against some stingy run defenses.

The Patriots rank eighth in the NFL, allowing 3.89 yards per carry, with the Texans just a bit behind at 4.09 yards per carry. In terms of rushing yards allowed per game, Houston ranks second in the NFL at 87.6, with the Patriots ranking ninth with 100.8 yards per game. And when it comes to keeping opposing backs out of the end zone, no team is better than the Texans, who have allowed just two rushing touchdowns all season. Two.

It will be a tall task for Foster, Ridley and both teams’ running games to accomplish much, but finding a way could go a long way toward victory.

Trench Battles
With Defensive Player of the Year front-runner J.J. Watt lining up on the Houston line, the Patriots’ offensive linemen are going to have their hands full (literally, at times). Dante Scarnecchia has done a tremendous job mixing and matching on his line this year, but Monday night’s game presents as tough a challenge as he’ll face all year.

Watt is second in the NFL this season with 16.5 sacks, including 9.5 sacks in the past six weeks. Overall, Houston is third in the league with 36 sacks, getting five apiece from Whitney Mercilus and Antonio Smith. With keeping Tom Brady upright a chief concern every week and the aforementioned challenges facing the running game, expect the Texans’ D line to cause headaches for New England.

However, all hope isn’t lost for the Pats. Though they did give up four sacks last week, tied for the most in a game this season, that was without Logan Mankins and with Dan Connolly leaving the game in the first half. This week, Mankins is expected to be back, which instantly solidifies the entire unit.

The Patriots also have experience, as they’ve faced teams in the top 10 in sacks (Denver, tied for first; St. Louis, tied for fourth; Miami, tied for sixth; Buffalo, tied for ninth) five times this season. They allowed four sacks against Denver and again against Miami, but they limited Buffalo to just two sacks in two games and didn’t allow a single sack against St. Louis. There’s also this: The Patriots’ record in those five games is 5-0.

Andre Johnson
The Patriots don’t often let an all-world receiver tear them to shreds, but generally, that receiver is the offense’s primary weapon. With the presence of Arian Foster and the sixth-ranked rushing defense, it becomes doubly difficult for the Patriots to try to slow down Andre Johnson.

The 230-pound Johnson is an absolute force, and he ranks fifth in the league with 1,114 receiving yards and eighth with 388 yards after the catch this season.

While the Patriots’ secondary has shown signs of improvement since adding Aqib Talib and making Devin McCourty a full-time safety, it’s still a unit that ranks 29th in passing yards allowed per game and 28th in yards per passing attempt. Slowing down Johnson will be no easy chore.

“He’s one of the best at what he does,” Talib said of Johnson. “He really can do it all from short routes, deeper routes, running with the ball in his hand, going up and getting the ball when he’s down the field. He can do it all.”

Johnson was held to just 56 yards last week against Tennessee, but in the two weeks before that, he picked up 188 yards against Detroit and a ridiculous 273 yards against Jacksonville. Don’t expect a repeat of that performance, but you can bet the 31-year-old is lighting up at the idea of lining up against the Pats.

Who Will Be The Surprise?
We can talk about the stars — Brady, Welker, Watt, Foster, Johnson, etc. — and they will obviously all factor into the game, but whenever there’s a primetime matchup such as this one, there always seems to be a big performance by a player who didn’t get much publicity heading in.

For the Patriots, the candidates include Danny Woodhead, Brandon Lloyd, Shane Vereen The Touchdown Machine, or even Chandler Jones, who could have some stored-up energy from missing the past two games with an ankle injury. For the Texans, Owen Daniels (6 TDs) Justin Forsett and Kevin Walter are candidates.

Just don’t be surprised if, come Tuesday morning, we’re all talking about players we weren’t giving much attention before the game.

Read more from Michael by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


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