Here’s everything you need to know about Sunday’s Patriots-Texans game:
1. Linebacker Brandon Spikes  and defensive lineman Vince Wilfork  against running back Arian Foster. The Texans are at their best when they’re running the ball, and that starts with Foster (1,424 rushing yards this season). Meanwhile, Spikes and Wilfork and two of the biggest reasons the Patriots were one of the best teams against the run this season — New England finished the regular season ninth in the league in run defense, allowing an average of 101.9 yards per game. Per Pro Football Focus, Spikes leads all inside linebackers with a +14 run grade, while Wilfork’s ability to dominate in the trenches continues to impress. The Texans weren’t able to run the ball much in the second half of the game the first time around — the fact that they fell behind 14-0 in a blink had something to do with that. But if Houston is able to hang with New England from the jump, expect the Texans to try and run the ball more than they did the first time around.
2. Defensive lineman J.J. Watt against the Patriots offensive line. History tells us that the teams that have done the best against New England over the last two-plus years have been able to control things up front, and for the Texans, that starts with Watt (20.5 sacks this season). The young defensive lineman was able to get a good push in his first game against the Patriots, but Brady was able to get the ball out quickly consistently, helping to negate any sort of Houston pass rush. The Texans have to figure out a way to get pressure on Brady without necessarily sending extra rushers, and so Watt has to work in tandem with other Houston pass rushers like Antonio Smith (seven sacks in the regular season), Whitney Mercilus (six sacks) and Connor Barwin (three sacks).
3. Quarterback Tom Brady  against the Texans pass defense. Last time around, Brady made the Texans regret their decision to send extra pressure on a regular basis as he carved up the Houston pass defense for 296 yards and four touchdowns on the way to a 42-14 rout. (For what it’s worth, Brady averages out to 25-for-41 for 297 yards with three touchdowns and one pick a game against Wade Phillips ‘ defenses.) So what has Phillips — who is 1-3 in his career against Brady — dreamed up for this matchup? One thing to look for is if he decides to try and take a page from the 2010 Jets, who turned the tables on the Patriots: a month after their horrific regular-season loss to New England, New York changed defensive philosophies. The Jets spent most of the playoff game attacking Brady with four rushers while dropping seven defenders into zone coverage in an attempt to clog up the passing lanes. It remains to be seen whether Phillips wants to do this — or if even has the personnel that can pull this off — but it remains a distinct possibility.
(I know we only usually do three matchups, but we can’t not mention the head-to-head battle that likely looms between cornerback Aqib Talib  against wide receiver Andre Johnson . With Talib, the Patriots have been able to play more man coverage in the passing game. The first time around — before Talib left just before the half with a hip injury — it was Talib against Johnson on a fairly regular basis. And while Talib didn’t necessarily lock him down, it allowed the Patriots to do some things that they couldn’t necessarily do before, including the movement of Devin McCourty  to safety. With the Patriots already up 7-0, McCourty would go on to pick up a game-changing pick of Matt Schaub on the New England goal line midway through the first quarter. The next time the Texans would get as close to the end zone, they would be down 28-0.)
4. Under the radar opponent who Patriots’ fans need to know: Tight end Garrett Graham. The 6-foot-3, 244-pound Wisconsin product missed the first game between the Patriots and Texans this season because of a head injury, but it appears that he’s ready to go this time around. He’s not a colossal game-changer, but he did have 28 catches for 263 yards and three touchdowns on the season. He’s also Houston’s best blocking tight end, and allows Houston to do some more things offensively (including utilizing more multiple tight end sets) than they did the first time around. It’s not quite comparable to the Patriots welcoming back a tight end of their own in Rob Gronkowski , but it provides a boost to the Houston offense.
5. By the numbers (tie, both courtesy of Nuggetpalooza ): One, the Patriots put up an NFL-high 41 drives lasting 10 or more plays in 2012. That tied their club (and league) record that they set in 2007. (Houston’s defense allowed only 17 such drives this season, the fewest in the league.) And two, New England’s defense forced 42 fumbles and recovered 21 of them, both league highs this season. The Texans only lost four fumbles on offense this season, tied with the Falcons for the fewest in the league.
6. Quote on the game: ‘There’s no simple answer on him, obviously. He’s great against the three-man rush, a four-man rush, a five-man rush and even blitz coverage. We played a lot of zone against him last time and he did a good job against that. You have to put pressure on him somehow, but you’d like to be able to do it with a four-man rush and play man or zone, but the reason you can’t do it is he’s so good and he’s got such great receivers.’ — Phillips on Brady.
7. Patriots fans should be worried about…… Houston somehow getting to a quick lead. So much of what the Texans do offensive is predicated on them playing with an advantage, but they effectively shot themselves in the foot in the first quarter the last time around. They turned the ball over twice and had four negative plays in the first quarter, and committed a pair of penalties in the first four minutes of the game. Houston was down 14-0 in a blink, and was clearly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the game.
8. Texans fans should be worried about…. the fact that the Patriots have their full collection of pass catchers together on the field for the first time in a meaningful game since the opening week of the regular season. While no one is sure what Gronkowski will be able to bring (more on him later), the idea of Brady have a full collection of offensive options should give the Texans’ defense pause. That, combined with an occasionally sluggish pass defense, should present a winnable matchup for the New England passing game.
9. One more thing: Call it the Gronkowski Effect. As we said before, no one is quite sure what sort of impact the big tight end is going to make in his first meaningful action since going down with a broken arm in November. He was on the field two weeks ago in the regular season finale and looked a little tentative when it came to using that injured arm, but was still able to hit and get hit without an issue. But even if he’s only able to go as a decoy, Gronkowski’s presence out there changes the way both teams are going to operate this time around as opposed to the December matchup.