ESPN NFL analyst Jon Gruden previews this week’s big Monday Night Football matchup as Matt Schaub and the Houston Texans (11-1) face three-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady and the New England Patriots (9-3) at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. The primetime battle of top AFC contenders will be televised on ESPN on Monday, December 10, at 8:30 p.m. ET.
What are your thoughts on this week’s Texans-Patriots game?
You obviously have two of the most high-potent offenses in the NFL. You have two great defensive coaches. I’m excited about Tom Brady going up against Wade Phillips and the Houston Texans defense. The idea of seeing Matt Schaub and the balanced Texans offense going up against Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia and the Patriots makes me want to get to Foxborough tonight.
What are keys to the game for both teams?
For the Texans, they possess the ball almost 36 minutes a game with their running game and high-percentage pass offense. I think keeping Tom Brady off the field and doing what they do on offense – protecting the ball, moving the ball and scoring points – is the recipe for success for the Texans. For the Patriots, they’re going to have to rely on Tom Brady once again – his ability to recognize, audible and attack. The Texans injuries in the secondary and at linebacker are going to make things difficult for Houston. This game has all the makings of a shootout.
I also think how the Patriots offensive line can handle the fierce front of the Texans is going to be something to watch. Houston has the best inside pass-rush that I’ve seen with Antonio Smith, J.J. Watt and Jared Crick coming in as the third tackle. They’ve got some real energy and playmaking inside.
What have you seen from quarterbacks Tom Brady and Matt Schaub this season?
Tom Brady’s expertise and clutch playmaking, talent and work ethic has been well-documented where Matt Schaub’s probably hasn’t. Schaub has won 15 out of 16. What he’s done behind the scenes in Houston rivals what Tom Brady does in New England. These are two very intelligent, highly motivated CEOs of their teams. They unify their football teams and epitomize everything you want in a quarterback. I kind of put them on the same level in terms of preparation, leadership and dominating the game from the neck up.
What are your impressions of J.J. Watt this season and what has impressed you the most?
He’s just unblockable. His stamina is incredible. He’s a tremendous athlete. A lot of people think he’s just a high-effort guy. He’s a rare athlete. He can get off the blocks and close. He can run over you. He has the elusiveness to run you down and change directions. He’s instinctive. He has the ability to reject passes when he knows he’s not going to get there, or when you’re going to throw the quick gain. He bats balls and he bats quarterbacks around. He’s an MVP candidate. There’s no question.
Is there an off-the-radar player – what you would call a “Gruden Grinder” – who is a potential difference-maker on Monday night?
I like Houston wide receiver Kevin Walter. He does a lot for the Texans as a blocker. This stretch running game is magnificent, but he cuts off the back side. He blocks the perimeter for these quick screens. He runs patterns. He catches balls. He’s a great pro football player. A lot of his production is not on the stat sheet.
A guy for New England is defensive end Rob Ninkovich. You watch Ninkovich on a snap-by-snap basis, you might not be overwhelmed by how good he is, but when you look at the whole game, and a series of games, he’s as valuable a member of the Patriots defense as anyone because he can play outside linebacker, inside linebacker, right end, left end. He can move around in their sub package. And he has skill to do all these things. I really like Ninkovich a lot.
Where do you rank the Texans and Patriots at this point in the season?
Houston is 11-1 for good reason. Their performance against the Ravens, the game we saw on Monday Night Football in New York against the Jets, going to Denver to beat the Broncos, there’s a consistency that’s impressive. They’ve had some injuries now and that’s the only concern I have. Brooks Reed and Brian Cushing are out. Johnathan Joseph has been out. They’re missing some key ingredients to their defense, but they can score with anyone and their effort and energy level is outstanding on defense. I think they are a favorite to get to the Super Bowl and win it. I would say the same about New England because of No. 12 and the head coach of the football team. They’ve had such great continuity. They can beat you in all three phases of the game, and they expect to win. They are used to winning. It’s hard to go against them.
How special is it to call a game of this magnitude in primetime on MNF this late in the season?
We had the world champions last week and one of the great up-and-coming stars of pro football in RGIII last week. This week, the two teams have combined for 20 victories. You want to coach in the biggest games, you want to play in the biggest games, and you want to broadcast the biggest games. And, if you’re a fan, you want to watch the biggest games. It’s exciting. It’s going to be a heck of a game.