There’s been plenty of discussion over the past week about what the key is going to be during tonight’s showdown between the Patriots and Texans, but it’s pretty obvious that it’s going to simply come down to one key player.

Tom Brady.

The last time the Patriots quarterback was in the national spotlight he lit up Rex Ryan and the Jets and threw 3 touchdown passes in a 49-19 rout of New York on Thanksgiving.  The Jets were a complete disaster in that game, yielding 21 points in less than a minute at one point and putting the game well out of reach before the first half even came to an end.

One would have to believe tonight’s game will be a little tougher. ¬†We probably won’t see Texans Matt Schaub bump into his own lineman and fumble the ball, and he’s certainly a much smarter and more disciplined player than Mark Sanchez. ¬†Houston is second in the league in points per game and it’s going to be up to Brady to make sure that the Patriots are able to keep pace with the Texans and more importantly try and get a lead early. ¬†Fortunately this game is being played at Gillette Stadium so hopefully the home crowd gets cranked up for what should be a playoff-like atmosphere. ¬†This could potentially be a preview of the AFC Championship game, and it could also ultimately decide who has home field for a battle to earn a trip to New Orleans.

In the end most fans expect it to be quite a tough game tonight and hopefully it’s Brady and the Patriots who come out on top. ¬†That being said, in honor of #12 here are twelve final thoughts heading into tonight’s game:

1) The spotlight is just as big on the defense: As much as we like to talk about Brady, this has surprisingly been one of the better seasons we’ve seen defensively in quite a while – despite the number of passing yards they’ve been giving up. ¬†Their +24 turnover differential is light years ahead of the rest of the NFL and still 8 better than the NFC Giants – with New York having played one more game (the Giants added four to their total yesterday with two interceptions and two fumble recoveries against New Orleans). ¬†This young Patriots defense is getting better about not giving up big plays and more importantly they keep forcing turnovers, and it’s hard to ignore the fact it’s become far more than a trend than a fluke.


Logan Mankins is reportedly expected to return tonight. (FILE:USPresswire)

2) Running game should be an interesting story line –¬†Stevan Ridley struggled for most of last week against Miami, with the Dolphins doing a good job of shutting him down and preventing him from really being effective. ¬†They held him to under 3-yards per carry for much of the first three quarters until he finally was able to have success in what ended up being a season-high 10 fourth quarter carries. ¬†Miami’s rush defense is 9th in the league while Houston ranked second, but one key for tonight’s game may be the return of Logan Mankins who is finally back after being out with an injury. ¬†The Patriots could use a guy like Mankins who is one of the tougher, nastier guys in the league. ¬†Hopefully he can shake off the rust and help them get things going early.

3) This is a big game for Aaron Hernandez –¬†With Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman out and the Texans likely focused on containing Wes Welker, it’s going to be interesting to see what the Patriots do to create match-up problems with Hernandez. ¬†As we know New England has done a good job moving him around and even motioning him out of the backfield, and it’s hard not to be a little curious to see how they use him tonight against Houston.

4) Patriots offensive line needs to keep Brady upright –¬†Brady’s quick release and his ability to get the ball out quickly has been one of the big reasons why he doesn’t get sacked very often. ¬†Brady’s been sacked just 19 times this season, and New England’s offensive line has done a decent job of protecting him despite the fact they’ve had so many injuries. ¬†J.J.Watt, who is second in the league in sacks with 16.5 coming into tonight’s game, will likely be a problem and will probably have his moments. ¬†Hopefully whatever they do to deal with him doesn’t open up an opportunity for someone else to cause Brady any issues. Which brings us to…

5) How J.J. Watt factors in should be interesting –¬†After watching film of Watt this season thanks the NFL’s Game rewind, it’s going to be interesting to see what effect he has on how the Patriots run the offense. He’s completely ridiculous in terms of his intensity and the way he plays the game. ¬†It’s probably the first time I’ve ever seen a guy who is jumping and swatting at passes on nearly every play, which explains how the guy has 15 passes defensed on a leader board that is full of cornerbacks and safeties. ¬†Needless to say it’s hard not to be curious to see what kind of game plan offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has put together this week to try and deal with him.

6) Will this be the game we’ll see Brandon Lloyd step up? - When the Patriots brought in Brandon Lloyd the idea was to finally give them a weapon on the perimeter and hopefully open things up overall in the passing game for the rest of the offense. ¬†During training camp Lloyd and Brady seemed to be getting things together and looked like they were settling in, but so far it’s been hit and miss for the most part this season and the two haven’t really been on the same page. ¬†Brady’s completed just 57% of the passes thrown his way, which is 10% lower than any other receiver with 30 or more targets this season. ¬†With Edelman sidelined tonight this would be a great time to see him finally have a big game.

7) How will the Patriots secondary deal with Andre Johnson? – As we know, the Texans Andre Johnson is a dangerous receiving threat, and it’s not often you see a guy like him. ¬†He’s 6’3″ and 230 pounds, far bigger than any cornerback or safety in the Patriots secondary. ¬†Johnson basically has tight end size and receiver speed – making him tough to defend. ¬†Who he matches up against along with what they do to keep him from having a big game should be an interesting thing to keep an eye on.

8) The offense needs to keep the defense off the field –¬†One of the biggest stats that stood out this week is the fact the Texans lead the league in average time of possession, holding the ball for 34:07. ¬†That’s about 4 minutes longer than the Patriots, who are 13th with 30:37. ¬†One big factor in this game is going to be, in the event this ends up being a close game, making sure they stay on the field to give the defense time to recuperate. ¬†The Patriots aren’t one to go three-and-out very often or turn the ball over, so hopefully that trend continues tonight.

9) This is Unsung hero Vince Wilfork’s time to shine –¬†What Wilfork has been able to do in the middle of the defense is one of the reasons why we’re seeing the front seven have so much success this season. ¬†It’s come up quite a bit recently and his play is something that kind of gets lost because he doesn’t necessarily officially show up on the stat sheet. However, it’s tough to ignore how much of an impact player he’s been and he’s one of the reasons why they’ve been able to make so many big plays. ¬†He also tends to show up in big games, and tonight certainly fits that category.

10) Chandler Jones is back –¬†According to most reports we should see Jones back on the field tonight, and considering how great they’ve been at getting to the quarterback recently it should be fun to see how Jones fits back into the mix. ¬†He was already having a pretty good year prior to getting injured, having totaled 6 sacks. ¬†Now that he’s back it’s tough not to be a little intrigued by how they use him against Houston later this evening.

11) Houston Favors the left side in the ground game:¬†The stat geek in me noticed that the Texans definitely like to run to the left side. ¬†Here’s how it breaks down: Left End: 71 plays (4.38 avg gain), Left Tackle: 67 plays (3.99 avg gain), Left Guard: 46 plays (2.67 avg gain), Middle: 69 plays (5.01 avg gain), Right Guard: 37 plays (3.95 avg gain), Right Tackle: 60 plays (5.53 avg gain), Right End: 47 plays (4.36 avg gain). ¬†Looking at the defensive chart, it’s worth noting that the Patriots give up an average gain of 6.52 on rushes to left end and 3.96 on rushes off left tackle. ¬†So it’s something to keep an eye on tonight.

12) We’ll find out if Brandon Spikes is ready for Arian Foster –¬†Spikes has been absolutely unreal this season and is clearly playing his best football so far as a Patriot. ¬†He’s been terrific against the run, and has been more physical than we had seen him be during his first two seasons. ¬†After not forcing a fumble in his first two seasons he has five through twelve games, tied for the third highest total in the league – oddly enough with teammate Rob Nikovich and New York Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn. ¬†It should be exciting to watch, as Houston’s fumbled just four times all year and have lost only two – with Foster accounting for one of them.

Feel free to drop a comment below with any concerns you have heading into this game, as well as any additional thoughts.