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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 8:11 PM

You’d have to say that Monday Night’s TV matchup featuring the Houston Texans and the New England Patriots is the best bet to be this season’s AFC Championship matchup. That’s what Vegas oddsmakers say. That’s what respected Power Ratings say. That’s what raw stat rankings say. Even though this is a regular season game, sports bettors will likely get their first real taste of playoff football Monday Night on ESPN.

To get a sense of how the best will play against each other, let’s quickly grade out what’s happened when Houston and New England have played other postseason contenders. We’ve learned in the past that running up the score on patsies is NOT a great indicator for the playoffs. You don’t play any patsies in the playoffs!

HOUSTON VS. CONTENDERS

Houston (-2) beat Denver 31-25

Houston (-3) lost to Green Bay 42-24

Houston (-6) beat Baltimore 43-13

Houston (+1) beat Chicago 13-7

That’s a relatively soft schedule for this deep into the season. A schedule quirk as two meetings with Wildcard contender Indianapolis falling in the last three weeks on the calendar. Though, it’s debatable whether the Colts are truly “playoff caliber” this year by the traditional definition. It’s a soft year in the AFC and somebody’s got to get the fifth and sixth spots.

Houston’s loss to Green Bay sticks out like a sore thumb. But, they showed a lot of toughness in Chicago in very trying conditions. That suggests at the very least that they won’t be intimidated by facing Tom Brady in Foxboro under the spotlight.

NEW ENGLAND VS. CONTENDERS

New England (+3) lost to Baltimore 31-30

New England (-6) beat Denver 31-21

New England (-3) lost to Seattle 24-23

New England (-9) beat Indianapolis 59-24

If you don’t see the Colts as a real playoff team yet, then the Pats went 1-2 against a slate that may not include any bye teams. Its toughest tests are ahead…within a matter of hours vs. Houston, and then against next week at home against San Francisco. File away for now the fact that New England didn’t win on the road vs. quality this year, as the games in Baltimore and Seattle were losses. If they don’t catch Houston from behind, a rematch in the championship game would be in Houston.

Nobody’s so dominant this year in the NFL that they’re going to look like a juggernaut within a “best of the best” sampling. That’s what makes Monday’s game so important. Handicappers and sports bettors will be learning while they watch about how the playoffs may play out in this conference.

HOUSTON TEXANS at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (8:35 p.m. on ESPN)

Las Vegas Spread: New England by 3.5, total of 51.5

The market gives New England respect at home, which is why the line is just above a field goal. Would New England get the nod on a neutral field? Who you like in this game probably answers that question for you. Dog lovers can’t believe New England is rated as the better team given the numbers you’re about to see. Belichick and Brady backers love the low price on a team with a Hall-of-Fame pedigree.

WON-LOST RECORDS (schedule strength according to USA Today)

Houston: 11-1 (31st ranked schedule)

New England: 9-3 (25th ranked schedule)

Neither team has played a tough schedule because the AFC has so few tough teams this year. And, the divisions housing these two teams have been soft outside of the Colts…who Houston hasn’t played yet. Pencil in league average schedules, and they both would drop a bit. We don’t see Houston dropping into a tie with the Pats though if both played the 16th ranked schedule). Houston would still lead by at least a game.

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL

Houston: +14

New England: +24

Great job from both teams exploiting their weak schedules in this category. Those of you who believe turnovers are “random” should check New England’s differentials in recent seasons. They’re typically great in this category, which is as non-random as it gets. Brady has mastered the risk-reward elements vs. weak teams. The Pats start to look mortal vs. quality because playoff caliber opponents aren’t as mistake-prone.

OFFENSIVE STATS

Houston: 389.6 yards-per-game on 5.5 yards-per-play

New England: 426.2 yards-per-game on 5.8 yards-per-play

No surprise here with New England. There is often some air in their offensive numbers because they call off the dogs in blowouts later than everyone else (or don’t bother calling them off). Even with that, it’s obviously an elite offense. It can be a tricky mix getting the right read in a big game because this is truly a great offense…BUT it creates illusions about its ceiling by running up the math vs. weaklings. Those of you who have lost money on the Patriots in recent postseasons can attest to that.

DEFENSIVE STATS

Houston: 322.6 yards-per-game on 5.1 yards-per-play

New England: 380.8 yards-per-game on 5.8 yards-per-play

Big edge here for Houston, which has admittedly been helped by the soft schedule. They didn’t look this good on Thanksgiving vs. Houston, or in their flat home effort against Jacksonville. If those versions of the Texans show up, New England will surge past 30 points with relative ease. We’re guessing Houston will bring more intensity to this one. Just remember what Aaron Rodgers did to this team before you jump on the upset soapbox.

LAST WEEK’S BOXES

HOUSTON 24, TENNESSEE 10

Total Yardage: Houston 332, Tennessee 354

Rushing Yards: Houston 125, Tennessee 89

Passing Stats: Houston 21-35-0-207, Tennessee 21-45-3-265

Turnovers: Houston 0, Tennessee 6

Third Downs: Houston 24%, Tennessee 27%

Vegas Line: Houston by 6, total of 47

It’s been fairly common this year for Houston to jump to a lead on an outmatched foe and then just grind out clock until the game is over. The fact that bad teams often hand you turnovers while they’re trying to play catch up has helped…which was obviously the case here with those six Tennessee giveaways. Not much evidence here for what Houston will do vs. a top team. Just a reminder that they don’t pile up yards when they don’t need them…which may understate their true potency when it’s time to go for broke.

NEW ENGLAND 23, MIAMI 16

Total Yardage: New England 321, Miami 277

Rushing Yards: New England 108, Miami 101

Passing Stats: New England 24-40-1-213, Miami 13-29-0-176

Turnovers: New England 1, Miami 1

Third Downs: New England 47%, Miami 23%

Vegas Line: New England by 7.5, total of 51

Miami isn’t a contender, but might have a playoff caliber defense. If you watched the game, you know that New England moved in fits and starts. Those are low yardage totals overall and in the air. They did avoid turnovers though while moving the chains. Obviously, New England becomes a lot less scary when they’re only passing for 213 yard while gaining 321. This is why Houston has a chance for the upset Monday…and why Baltimore, Denver, or a healthy Pittsburgh could be trouble for the Patriots in January.

BEST EXPECTATION

The numbers above would suggest that Houston offers value at the current price. The problem is…that defense might not be prepared at all for what Brady is going to bring to the table (as they were unprepared for Green Bay and Rodgers). Also, Houston has been benefitting from opposition turnovers all season…and that’s much less likely to happen against a team like the Pats. Handicapping at its highest levels is a form of chess. You have to think a few moves ahead if you want to make the right bet on the side and/or total in this game.

JIM HURLEY has had his eye on this game since the opening weeks of the season. Once it was clear early on that Houston and New England were going to be on the short list for Super Bowl entries…this game was circled…and the computer simulation program started running. NETWORK is ready. And YOU can GET THE MONEY in the biggest NFL game so far this season right here at the website.

Make a few clicks to find out if this is a side….a total…or a parlay from our handicapping juggernaut. You can also call 1-800-323-4453 to sign up and get more information about the service. If you haven’t already locked in for all the bowls, the NFL stretch drive, and the NFL playoffs, today is the perfect time to take care of business.

Back with you Tuesday with more sports analysis from a Las Vegas betting perspective. Be sure you’re winning SEVEN DAYS A WEEK in football AND basketball with JIM HURLEY’S NETWORK!

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