FOXBOROUGH -- How the Houston Texans' secondary recovers may very well determine the outcome of tonight's game.
But defending the Texans' running game will be the Patriots' No. 1 priority.
Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph returns from hamstring and groin injuries after missing Houston's last two games. The 5-11, 198-pound corner is one pass defense away from 100 in his seven-year career. But he's going to be tested by one of the best receivers in the game in Wes Welker.
Here are three things to watch for in the Patriots' Monday night matchup with the Texans:
1) Welker can make history -- With eight catches tonight, which is not a stretch of the imagination after averaging eight over the last four games, Welker will have recorded his fifth 100-reception season, an NFL record. We're sure he'll get it done this season, but if he gets it done tonight, it'll be an indication of the Patriots' success passing the ball in the rainy weather against Joseph and the Texans' secondary. Joseph, an All-Pro cornerback, will not necessarily be tasked with covering Welker the entire night. But we're sure he'll get the man-on-man assignment if Welker creates havoc.
2) Will the Patriots run defense stand up? -- For all the criticism the Patriots' secondary receives, a blight on the team's defense, the run defense has been and continues to be a bright spot. The Patriots hold opponents to 100.8 yards per game, eighth best in the league. And what's more, this team has risen to the occasion when the league's top runners have come up on the schedule. The Patriots held Chris Johnson to four yards, Willis McGahee to 51 yards, Marshawn Lynch to 41 yards, Stephen Jackson to 23 yards, and Reggie Bush to 64 yards. The Patriots need that kind of performance to stunt the trio of backs Houston will deploy, led by Arian Foster. We'll see early if a healthy Chandler Jones, as well as Rob Ninkovich, help the Patriots set the edges for what will be an onslaught of stretch running plays.
3) How will the Patriots handle J.J. Watt? -- Watt's 15.5 passes defensed are better than Devin McCourty (11), Kyle Arrington (8) and Brandon Spikes (7). And he's a defensive lineman. Add in the 16.5 sacks this season and you can see why Bill Belichick called him the most disruptive player the Patriots have seen all season. Watt will move around from the end spot, lining up over both guards and the center at times. Whether the Patriots will dedicate more than one man to him will bear out over the game. Of course, the risk is allowing somebody like Antonio Smith (5 sacks) to get loose.