December 9, 2012

AFC's best in playoff peek?

Monday's showdown between the Patriots and Texans could be just their first clash.

By Howard Ulman, The Associated Press

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Huge games in December -- or January and February, for that matter -- are nothing new for the New England Patriots.

For the Houston Texans, they are rare.

The Monday night matchup should be quite a show.

"It's the biggest game in the history of this franchise," Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson said. "As long as we keep winning, every game is going to be bigger."

They each hold playoff reservations in the AFC. They're the highest scoring teams in the NFL. Both have six-game winning streaks.

The implications for the postseason add even more luster -- the winner moving a step closer to a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

The Patriots have played many bigger games and are downplaying its significance. They've won three Super Bowls, although the last was for the 2004 season, while the Texans reached the playoffs last season for the first time since they began playing in 2002.

"Once we get in December, games become more and more important (but) we also have to realize this game doesn't decide anything" about the playoffs, Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. "A lot can happen (before) then. Whoever wins this game doesn't guarantee anything later in the season."

Houston (11-1) has clinched a playoff berth and can take the AFC South with a win and a loss or tie by Indianapolis (8-4), or with a tie and an Indianapolis loss. Two of the Texans' last three games are against the Colts.

New England (9-3) locked up first place in the AFC East last Sunday. The top two seeded teams will get a week off to rest and prepare for their first postseason game before their own fans.

But the value of playing at home is debatable: Over the past five seasons, teams are 29-21 at home in the postseason.

The Patriots lost a divisional round game at home two seasons ago to the New York Jets, but are unbeaten in Gillette Stadium in December for nearly 10 years -- a string of 19 wins since a 30-17 loss on Dec. 22, 2002 to the Jets.

But the Texans are the only team without a road loss this season, going 6-0.

"I've been with young teams that they go on the road and here comes the noise. All of a sudden, boy, you panic," Houston Coach Gary Kubiak said. "This group, it doesn't matter. They'll go play anywhere. They know. I've preached to them for a period of time. It's about how you play. It's not where you play."

Both teams have been playing very well regardless of where.

The Patriots lead the NFL with 35.8 points and 426.3 yards per game. Tom Brady went five straight games without throwing an interception before Miami broke that steak in the Patriots' 23-16 win last Sunday.

Wes Welker leads the NFL with 92 receptions and with eight catches can become the first player with five seasons of 100 receptions.

The Patriots have one of the best running games in Brady's 12 seasons as their starter, led by Stevan Ridley's 1,010 yards, seventh in the NFL.

The no-huddle offense, something Brady excels at to keep the opponent from resting and making substitutions, puts added pressure on the defense.

So the Texans prepare for it.

"That's something we do all the time, regardless of who we're playing. We pick up the tempo of our practice both offensively and defensively and try to work as if we're working on a much shorter clock all the time," Kubiak said. "They obviously play at a tremendous pace and you better be ready to get your calls in and get ready to go."

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