Top seed on the line for Texans against Pats

Texans want to knock the Patriots from their AFC throne to prove they belong at No. 1.

HOUSTON -- Andre Johnson was wrong, or at least he was hyperbolic, when he described the magnitude of the Texans-Patriots game Monday night.

"Biggest game in the history of this franchise," he said.

By any objective analysis, that's just not true. The Texans were in the playoffs last year, and this is not a playoff game. Relative to that, the stakes are low.

But it is significant that it was Johnson who said this, because Johnson is not prone to hyperbole. He is one of the most understated stars in professional sports. You're lucky to get inflection out of him, much less inflammation.

So it makes you wonder. If Johnson felt that way, then maybe in the realm of the subjective this is as big as it has ever gotten for the Texans, who have been around 11 years, 10 of them with Johnson as their star.

The Texans (11-1) have a better record than the Patriots (9-3), and a lot of people think they're the better team. And yet these are the Patriots, monarchs of the AFC, led by Prince Brady. You have to take the crown.

"When you've been somewhere you've never been before, everything gets bigger," Johnson said.

The Texans have a two-game lead on New England, Baltimore and Denver for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, and a win in New England would inflict serious damage on the chances of any other team claiming that spot.

If Houston wins Monday kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. central time in Foxboro, Mass. the worst it can do this season is 12-4. Even if New England won out, the Texans would have the tiebreaker on account of the head-to-head win.

Houston also has head-to-head wins over Denver (10-3) and Baltimore (9-3). A win in any of Houston's three remaining games (two of which are against the Colts) would give the Texans the No. 1 seed.

If they win Monday.

But visiting teams are 14-71 at Gillette Stadium, which opened in 2002. It is expected to be cold and rainy Monday night. The Texans are a warm-weather team that plays its home games indoors. All that is in play. Then again, Houston is undefeated on the road this year, and it beat the Bears on a cold, rainy day in Chicago.

That information can be carved into any number of shapes. A less subjective analysis is easy to spot. The Patriots have the NFL's most productive offense, averaging 426 yards per game, and the Texans have the league's most disruptive defense, ranking second in sacks (39), second in takeaways (26) and first in passes defensed (91).

It is the most classic possible version of a football clash.

"This isn't the most complicated team we've ever seen," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "But what they do, they do well."  

The Texans should get a boost this week from the return of cornerback Johnathan Joseph, their best player in the secondary and possibly the second-best player on the defense. Without him, Houston has been vulnerable to passing teams the past few weeks.

Joseph practiced Thursday and is expected to play Monday.

"He looked good," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "He took a third to a half of the reps today in practice and looked very explosive, looked good. We'll be smart as we work through the week."

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will test exactly how good Joseph looks, though he'll have to do so without Julian Edelman, who is out for the year after catching 21 passes for 235 yards. New England signed veteran Donte' Stallworth to replace him.

Regardless, the Patriots most likely are going to push the tempo, something they've done all year. It's a strategy that often negates the influence of a strong pass rush, thereby adding pressure to the secondary.

Brady, however, wouldn't admit to that.

"You might have to tune in Monday night and find out what we do," he said.

And so that's about as much as there is to it. The week has had that big-game feeling to it, mainly in that both teams have spent the week showering each other with compliments like actors at an awards show.

The Texans will be at mostly full strength, the Patriots will be at home in December, a circumstance in which they have not lost in years. The top seed in the AFC remains up for grabs.

It's either a big game, the biggest game, or somewhere in between.

"Well, they're a great football team, so any time you play the best, you want to see how you match up," Brady said. "I think that our guys are excited and it's a big challenge for us."

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