By TPR Staff

When the 2012 NFL schedule was released back in April, I quickly ran through all of the biggest games  that I labeled as can’t miss. But one Monday Night game in particular caught my eye. In early December, the matchup between the Houston Texans and New England Patriots got a big red circle on my personal copy of the schedule. Why? Because it was my belief that one of these two teams would be playing in New Orleans come early February.

As the season has went along, neither team has disappointed. The Texans are a league best 11-1, including 6-0 on the road, while the Patriots are just four points from perfection. So this matchup doesn’t really need me to hype it up at all. These are the two best teams in the AFC, in my opinion, as of right now (sorry, Broncos fans. Beat a team that isn’t Oakland, Kansas City or San Diego and we’ll talk). This game could decide if the road to Super Bowl XLVII goes through the Northeast, or the Southwest.

The similarities between the teams are both stunning and nonexistent. At first glance, most say that the Patriots have the best quarterback in the game, but a lackluster defense. Whereas the casual NFL fan thinks the Houston offensive game plan is to hand the ball to Arian Foster and let the defense hold them under twenty. But upon further examination, these two teams are much more similar than most think.

Matt Schaub is never going to be a hall of fame quarterback like Tom Brady is. To argue that would just kill any credibility someone has at all. Comparing their numbers is rather absurd, as Houston is a running football team that can air it out if the y need to, but usually they like to establish the run and control the time of possession. New England just says we’re going to throw it every play and I dare you to try and blitz out quarterback.

Both of these offenses can put up some numbers. In fact, they’re one-two in most offensive categories in all of football. New England is putting up a stunning 35.8 points each week, while Houston routinely gets 29.3 every week. The Patriots are first in point differential with an average victory of 14.2 points, to the Texans 10.8, which is good enough for second. As for yardage, Brady and the boys plow out 426.3 yards per contest to Houston’s 389.6 per week. Long story short; if this is a shoot out, no one would be surprised.

Most believe that the Patriots offense has the upper hand while Houston’s defense is superior to New England’s. But when you dig a little deeper into the subcategories over just where they rank in the league over all (Houston 6th, New England 26th), you see that these two defenses have many similarities as well.

New England is leading the league in turnover differential with +24. Houston is tied for second in the NFL with +14. So the Patriots “bend, but don’t break” rule has helped them a great deal while intercepting their opponent 14 times this year, a number that Houston replicates. In the secondary is where Houston has had a real advantage until as of late.

When all-pro defensive back Jonathan Joseph went down with a groin injury, teams started throwing the ball all over the field on the young back up players. So seeing Joseph listed as probable for this game has the hearts of those in Houston slowing down a bit. Tom Brady is going to get his, but best not to let his set some kind of a record in facing Kareem Jackson and a couple of second year guys seeing their first real non-special teams action.

The winner of this game will be the one who doesn’t turn the ball over. Both of these offenses are so good that you don’t want to give either of them an extra turn. The defenses are terrific at causing turnovers, so things could be up in the air if the weather gets nasty.

On paper, this is the best matchup of the season. In fact, it’s a quirky stat, but the two teams combined record of 20-4 this late in the season ties for the best of all time in a Monday Night Football game. Playing in New England in possible bad weather seems to give the Patriots the upper hand, but Houston, and especially Matt Schaub, have played exceedingly well on the road the past two seasons. We’ll know a lot more about both teams after this one, including if my assumption that one would be representing the AFC come February was accurate or not.

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