Here’s everything you need to know about Monday’s Patriots-Texans game:
Our three favorite matchups:
1. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer  against defensive lineman J.J. Watt: The Texans will move Watt around, but he spends the majority of his time lined up opposite the offense’s right tackle/right guard spot. That will put him across from Vollmer for most of the game, and he’ll almost certainly be the biggest challenge of the year for the Patriots right tackle, who is having a Pro Bowl-caliber year despite the fact that he struggled last Sunday against the Dolphins. This will be the biggest challenge of the year for Vollmer, but if he can consistently win this matchup (with some help from a tight end here and there), it will be a huge factor in a potential New England victory.
2. Running back Stevan Ridley against the Texans’ run defense: One of the primary goals for the Patriots offense  this week is to win on first down — one of the reasons Houston is such a great third-down defense (best in the league coming into this week) is that they put teams in a hole by winning the battles on first and second down, forcing opponents into third-and-long situations. (The team that had the most success against Houston on third down this season was Detroit, which converted 50 percent of its chances. A big reason for that is the Lions won on first down — they averaged 7.2 yards per play on first down vs. the Texans.) Ridley will play a sizable role on Monday — no running back in the league has racked up more first downs than Ridley (66) and as good as Watt is when it comes to defending the run, Houston is allowing 4.1 yards per rush, 12th in the league. The running game represents a winnable matchup for the Patriots, particularly if they find a weakness in the Texans run defense and keep picking away at it like they did in the fourth quarter of last week’s win over the Dolphins.
3. Cornerback Aqib Talib  against wide receiver Andre Johnson : Talib has been uneven at times on the back end, but has certainly shown playmaking skills, something that’s been sorely lacking in the New England secondary the last few years. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Talib has the body type and ball skills to match up with Johnson, one of the most consistent big-body receivers the NFL has seen over the last 10 years. (Johnson comes into the game on a bit of a roll — he has 28 catches for 517 yards and a touchdown in his last three games.) They won’t be matched up on each other exclusively — look for Talib to get lots of safety help.
(Talib’s work with the safeties will play a big role in this one, as the Texans are one of the best teams in the league when it comes to play action. If New England’s safeties take the bait when it comes to Matt Schaub‘s play fakes, Talib will be left on an island alone with Johnson — not an appetizing proposition for New England. And for what it’s worth, the communication between Talib and the safeties is still a work in progress. He was almost beaten badly on a throw by Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill last Sunday on a play where it looked like he was waiting for safety help. It was a bad pass by Tannehill that ultimately went off the mark, but Talib glared at safety Steve Gregory  like he was expecting help. How he works with the safeties will bear watching on Monday night.)
4. Under the radar opponent who Patriots fans need to know: We’ve targeted opposing tight ends a few times here, and we’re going to stick with that formula when talking about the Texans. Owen Daniels  is a quality pass catcher who remains a real threat for the Houston offense — he’s second on the team in receptions with 50 (on 82 targets), and has 598 yards and six touchdowns. Think of the 6-foot-3, 249-pounder as a poor man’s Rob Gronkowski : a decent blocker who is a red-zone threat. He’s not overwhelming like Gronkowski, but remains dangerous.
5. By the numbers: Per Nuggetpalooza , the Patriots and Texans are the only teams that haven’t allowed a rushing play of 30-plus yards this season.
6. Quote from an opposing scout regarding this Sunday: ‘[Houston’s] linebackers are very physical — they can set the edge in the run game, and they also do a good job getting after the quarterback. Their safeties are active, but if there’s a weakness there in terms of how the Patriots might want to attack, it’s their secondary. There could be some soft spots there for the Patriots in terms of areas they might want to attack.’ — For more from that scout, click HERE .
7. Patriots fans should be worried about’¦.. Other than Watt, it’s Houston’s ability to pick up big chunks of yardage off play action. Entering this weekend, Schaub and the Texans are fifth when it comes to play-action percentage, and this season, it’s been a terrific weapon for their offense. (That’s thanks in large part to the ability of running back Arian Foster to gash opponents on the ground.) When it comes to defending play-action, the Patriots linebackers and defensive backs — particularly the safeties — have to stay disciplined, and in the words of safety Devin McCourty , read your keys. If not, Houston will go back to it time and again.
8. Texans fans should be worried about’¦. The temptation to bring too many pass rushers on Brady. Houston brings steady waves of pressure from all over, but the Patriots quarterback is one of the best in the league when it comes to dealing with extra rushers. The Texans have to find a middle ground between continuing to get a consistent rush on the quarterback, but not so much that it takes away from whatever support the front seven can provide the secondary.
9. One more thing: This has been discussed over the course of the week by several different folks, but the Houston secondary is pretty banged up. They have a few regulars who are already on the shelf, and the players who have been asked to step up are struggling with injury as well. If Brady has time to get the ball out to his receivers, it should be a winning matchup for pass catchers like Wes Welker , Brandon Lloyd  and Aaron Hernandez .
(And another thing: The 11-1 Texans have the best record of any visiting team in Foxboro in December, and you could certainly make a case that they are the best visiting team in the history of Gillette Stadium  in the month of December. The only challengers, record-wise, are the 2010 Jets, who came into a Dec. 6, 2010, contest with a 9-3 record, and the 2007 Steelers, who had a 9-4 mark heading into a Dec. 9, 2007 game against New England in Foxboro. Both of those teams lost to the Patriots.)