• Patriots, Texans eye playoff bye
    By HOWARD ULMAN
    The Associated Press | December 09,2012
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    AP PHOTO

    New England quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots host Houston, which is 6-0 in road games this season, on Monday night.
    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.”

    But the Patriots haven’t faced a defense as tough as Houston’s. The Texans are fifth in the league in sacks per pass play, led by J.J. Watt’s AFC-best 16 1-2 overall.

    “They certainly get after the football. They can rush the quarterback. They do a great job stopping the run,” Brady said. “They get a lot of balls batted down at the line of scrimmage, interceptions, fumbles. They’ve won a lot of close games. They’ve won overtime games. They’ve come from behind.

    “I think our guys understand the challenge and we have to play our best game.”

    Houston is tied for fifth with 26 takeaways. New England is second with 33 and leads the NFL with a plus-24 turnover differential.

    But the Texans have committed only 12 turnovers, including a league-low two fumbles.

    With Matt Schaub throwing, AFC rushing leader Arian Foster running and Andre Johnson catching, the Patriots’ defense has plenty to handle.

    “They have a bunch of playmakers,” defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. “It shows every week.”

    So does the Patriots’ ability to force turnovers. They’ve even returned two interceptions and two fumbles for touchdowns in their past three games.

    “They’re very aware of the football and trying to strip it,” Schaub said, “whether it be the runners or receivers with the ball or the quarterback in the pocket.”

    The Texans do that, too, just another of the similarities between two of the NFL’s best teams.

    “They never get too high, never get too low,” Wilfork said. “They stay poised. That’s a lot of (what coach Bill Belichick) tries to teach us around here, just to stay poised when things are not going well; things are going well, just keep an even keel.”

    Even when the game could help determine home-field advantage in the playoffs.

    “Every game is big here coming down the stretch,” Kubiak said. “We’re in position, just like the Patriots are, to kind of control our own destiny.”

    ———

    AP sports writer Kristie Rieken in Houston contributed to this story

    ———

    Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP—NFL
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