The AFC is now getting down to its sharp end with the top four dogs jostling for preferential seeding for the postseason. The Houston Texans hold a handy advantage over their three rivals to the No.1 seed, but now they face the New England Patriots at Foxborough, an early examination of their Super Bowl credentials.
For their part, the Patriots have overcome some early season reversals with a six-game winning streak which sets them up nicely for the pivotal December schedule - historically a time productive for the Boston batterers.
However, both the Denver Broncos (comfortable winners again in Thursday Night Football) and the Baltimore Ravens are applying pressure for the No.2 seeding which ensures a first-round bye in the play-offs and crucial homefield advantage. In short, it's a postseason precursor neither really can afford to lose.
It may have taken a long time for Tom Brady to kick his AFC champions into a high gear this term, but all those Pats playmakers are now making up for lost time (with the notable exception of Rob Gronkowski who's now out with a broken arm).
Earlier in the season, defenses were getting to Brady, whose distribution became erratic as a result. But the previously porous gaps have now been plugged and Brady's boys are invariably moving down the field with effortless ease. Coach Bill Belichick even looks grumpy at Christmas time - and this is a season when the strategic scrooge gives away the fewest gifts.
Not that the Texans have been that generous themselves. Defensive End J.J. Watt has led this defensive charge and comfortably heads their conference with 16 sacks. Collectively, Houston rank a foreboding fifth in the league for Sacks Per Passing Play. Long story short: they can certainly get after the QB and the football.
Nevertheless, the Texans have nearly tripped up with some uncharacteristic stumbles in recent weeks (most notably, an abject performance against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars) and are somewhat struggling to close out an impressive regular season. Quarterback Matt Schaub keeps coming through in the final analysis but he now confronts a side in a hostile arena where his mistakes will be magnified.
The Texans may be the only unbeaten team on the road in the NFL. However, that's a run which only spans six games. The Patriots have won their last 19 home games in December since 2002. They top the charts with 35.8 points and 426.3 yards per match (in spite of a lacklustre recent outing) and will enjoy some further freedom from a depleted Houston secondary (Brice McCain, Johnathan Joseph and Alan Ball are on all the sick list and will not be at full tilt if they do pass fit for scrimmage).
The competition for play-off places is a rarefied air one has to be taught to breathe. Brady and Co have been up and down this particular mountain time and time again. A painful lesson is altitude training could be in the offing for the Texans.
Back New England Patriots (-3 points) on the Match Point Spread @ 1.75/7 or betterBack New England Patriots (-3 points) on the First-Half Point Spread @ 1.845/6 or betterBack Over 48.5 Total Points @ 1.84/5 or better