When Tom Brady looks at the Houston Texans, he doesn't see one of the worst teams in the league that has lost nine games in a row.
Instead, the New England quarterback sees the league's No. 1 defense led by J.J. Watt, and a talented team hungry for a win.
"Anything that's happened for them this season doesn't matter and anything that's happened for us makes no difference, either," Brady said. "They've lost some close games, we've pulled out some close games. I think that's the big difference. It could just as easily go the other way."
Houston's defense is allowing the fewest yards in the NFL and Watt has 9 ½ sacks, but the Texans are 2-9. Six of their losses, including each of the last five, have been by a touchdown or less. The Patriots (8-3) have won five games by seven or fewer points, including last Sunday's overtime win against Denver. It was the largest comeback in franchise history after New England trailed by 24 points at halftime before rallying for the 34-31 victory.
"We have a big challenge," Brady said. "I don't think we've really performed to our level of what we need to. We're still building and trying to figure out what kind of team we're going to be."
The AFC East-leading Patriots are trying to break a three-game road skid with an offense they still see as a work in progress. Coach Bill Belichick still doesn't think all of his offensive pieces are comfortable with one another.
"I think there's a lot of room for improvement ... we've just got to continue to work with the people that are available and improve our level of execution, communication, and make sure that we're doing things as efficiently and fundamentally properly as we possibly can," he said. "I think that will serve us well in the long run if we can do that."
The Patriots look to continue a trend of excellent December play on Sunday. New England has won 15 of its last 16 games in the month and Belichick is an NFL-best 47-8 in December since 2000. With 80 career touchdown passes in December, Brady needs one more to move into fifth place in NFL history for touchdown tosses in the month.
A victory on Sunday will assure the Patriots of their 13th consecutive winning season.
Five things to know about the Patriots-Texans game:
ANDRE'S MILESTONE: Houston's Andre Johnson needs just eight receptions to become the 15th player in NFL history to reach 900 in his career. If he does it on Sunday in his 150th career game, he'll be second-fastest to reach the mark behind Marvin Harrison, who did it in 149 games. Johnson is fourth in the NFL with 1,002 yards receiving for the seventh 1,000-yard season of his career.
GRONK GETS GOING: New England tight end Rob Gronkowski has gotten into a groove after missing the first six games after offseason surgery on his back and broken left forearm. Since his return, he leads all tight ends with 31 catches for 433 yards, and has touchdown in three straight games. Gronkowski has 11 100-yard receiving games in his career, which is the most for a New England tight end. Two of those games have come this season.
KUBIAK OUT OF THE BOOTH?: Houston's Gary Kubiak has coached from the booth on doctor's orders in his two games back since missing one game recovering from a mini-stroke he suffered at halftime of Houston's game against Indianapolis. This week he's hoping to return to the sideline.
"I have every intention of being on the field," Kubiak said. "I think I've got probably a better chance than I had last week."
CONSISTENT CHANDLER: New England defensive end Chandler Jones was the AFC defensive player of the month after piling up 17 tackles and four sacks in November. His four sacks were second only to Watt's five in the conference during the month. The second-year player has a career-best 61 tackles and 10 ½ sacks this season.
"Chandler has played much more consistently this year than last year," Belichick said. "Although I thought he did a lot of good things last year too, but his game has come up and we've asked him to do more ... we've asked him to do different things. He's worked hard at those and gotten better at them and that's helped our team."
LAST TIME OUT: Sunday will be the first time these teams have met since the Patriots got a 41-28 win in the playoffs last January to advance to the AFC championship game. It was the second time the teams met last season; New England won 42-14 in the regular season. The Patriots are 4-1 overall against Houston including the playoffs, with Houston's only win coming in the season finale in 2009 when New England had already clinched a playoff spot.
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