Tom Brady and the Patriots play host to the Texans next Monday. (Robert Duyos / MCT )
Matt Schaub owes a debt of gratitude to the New England Patriots.
OK, maybe that's taking it a bit far, but the Houston Texans quarterback did launch his career against the Patriots back in 2005 when he was playing for Atlanta.
Michael Vick was recovering from a strained knee at the time, so the Falcons started Schaub for the Week 5 game in Atlanta. The Patriots won, 31-28, but Schaub shined in his debut, throwing for 298 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.
The following off-season, the Falcons traded Schaub to Houston for a couple of second-round picks, and a big-time career was born.
This is relevant now because the Patriots play host to Houston on Monday in a clash of the AFC's two top franchises. With four weeks to go, the 11-1 Texans are on track for the top seeding in the conference, and the 9-3 Patriots are in line for the No. 2 seeding.
Houston lost linebacker Brian Cushing to an injury this season, but their defense hasn't broken stride. It's ranked fourth in points allowed, 18.4, and led by defensive end J.J. Watt, who is second in the league in sacks with 151/2.
"He's a great player, wherever they line him up," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Monday of Watt. "They'll move him a little bit, inside, outside. We're going to have to have more than one guy ready to handle him and block him. It won't just fall to the guard or to the tackle."
In terms of scoring, the Patriots and Texans rank 1-2 in the standings, with New England averaging 35.2 points per game to Houston's 29.2.
There's no overstating the difficulty of playing Tom Brady of the Patriots in Foxborough in December, a month in which they have won 12 consecutive games.
"Our last month is going to be difficult," Texans Coach Gary Kubiak told reporters Monday. "But when it's difficult, that's what gives you the best chance to prepare for a good football team in January."
We meet again
Two weeks ago, Chicago thrashed the visiting Minnesota Vikings, 28-10. The teams will meet again Sunday in a critical NFC North game.
If the season ended today, the 8-4 Bears would be seeded fifth, and the 6-6 Vikings would be on the outside looking in. But there's plenty of time for the picture to change.
The Vikings would love to have receiver Percy Harvin (ankle) back for the Bears, but there's no guarantee of that. Running back Adrian Peterson leads the league in rushing with 1,446 yards, and is coming off a 210-yard performance in a loss to Green Bay.
Race to the bottom
It isn't just playoff berths that are up for grabs. So is the No. 1 pick in the next draft. The five teams in "best" position for that distinction are Jacksonville and Kansas City, both with two wins, and the three-win trio of Carolina, Oakland and Philadelphia.