The New England Patriots and their flawless second-half record will be on a collision course Monday night with the 11-1 Houston Texans, arguably the NFL's most complete team, with a marquee defense led by the irrepressible J.J. Watt and a maddeningly balanced offense that features one of the more redoubtable running backs in Arian Foster.
Oh, and quarterback Matt Schaub is pretty good, too.
Pretty good? Schaub, who was drafted in the quarterback class that generated Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, has not yet cracked the elusive QB code that provides access to the "elite" inner circle, where seats are reserved for guys named Brady, Brees, Rodgers and Manning(s). Like Matt Ryan in Atlanta, Schaub still is jockeying for position for his place among the game's top signal-callers.
A win against the Patriots in their building on Monday night could be a substantial step in that direction.
Since 2011, there isn't a quarterback among the aforementioned list who boasts a better record than Schaub (18-4). He continues to thrive in the play-action game; according to ESPN Stats & Information, his 10 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in play-action have generated a plus-8 rating, which ties him for the league lead. And over the past four seasons, only Drew Brees (54) and Aaron Rodgers (44) have thrown more play-action touchdowns than Schaub's 43.
And, although it's a small sample, Schaub has excelled against the Patriots the two times he's faced them.
His numbers: 42-of-73 for 601 yards, 5 touchdowns and 1 interception.
In fact, he can thank New England for putting him on the pro football map.
Schaub's professional "coming-out" party was against the Patriots on Oct. 9, 2005, while he was wearing the uniform of the Atlanta Falcons. At the time, Schaub was a well-regarded but seldom-used player out of Virginia, a backup to Michael Vick, the gambling, scrambling quarterback who had not yet been pinched (and subsequently incarcerated) for his dogfighting transgressions.
Vick was nursing a knee injury, but all week he was listed on the team's injury report as "probable." It wasn't until the day before the game that Atlanta coach Jim Mora downgraded him to "questionable."
That left Patriots coaches seething. They felt the Falcons had deliberately manipulated the injury report so New England would prepare for the wrong quarterback.
They succeeded. As former Patriots defensive tackle Ty Warren confirmed, the Patriots practiced all week expecting Vick to take the field.
"It was typical Bill [Belichick]," Warren said. "He found the quickest guy from our practice squad -- Bam Childress, I think it was -- and had him running all over the field pretending to be Vick.
"Bill put up 10 seconds on the game clock and had us chasing him from one end to the other. Once in a while, he'd have [Childress] throw a short pass.
"So that's what we prepared for, but then we got there and it was Schaub. Obviously he had a completely different skill set than Vick. He was very young. He was somewhat mobile, but mostly he was operating as a drop-back quarterback.
"He carved us up a little bit. I was impressed with the guy."
Eric Mangini, now an ESPN analyst, was New England's defensive coordinator at the time, and although he recalls the game as "a good lesson on the value of preparing for two quarterbacks," he conceded that while the team reviewed Schaub's dossier, "We didn't spend nearly as much time on him as we did on Vick."
"It was the worst," Mangini said. "We wasted all that preparation, all the player meetings, the film sessions, the coaches strategy meetings on something that turned out not to materialize. Very frustrating."
The game against New England was not Schaub's first career start. The previous season, in 2004, he got the nod in Week 16 against the New Orleans Saints. In a forgettable 26-13 loss, Schaub was 17-of-41 for 188 yards, 2 interceptions, no touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 35.4. His started his day by being sacked in the end zone for a safety.
With Vick entrenched as the face of Atlanta's franchise, Schaub was forced to stew in his own disappointment for another year before getting the opportunity to erase those dismal numbers. According to Warren, it showed.
"He came in with that 'I've got something to prove' attitude that you see in backup quarterbacks a lot," Warren said.
One of Schaub's favorite targets against the Patriots that day was tight end Alge Crumpler, who caught six balls for 99 yards and a touchdown. Crumpler, who later went on to play a season in New England, recalls Schaub's uncommon poise.
"He gave us a chance to win against a very, very good football team," Crumpler said.
The Falcons trailed most of the game and were down 28-13 to start the fourth quarter before Schaub hit Crumpler for a 25-yard touchdown pass.
Then, with just 3:57 left in the game, Schaub marched his team down the field again and drilled a 14-yard touchdown pass to Dez White. He then connected with Brian Finneran on the 2-point conversion to tie the game 28-28.
The incredulous Atlanta fans erupted, sensing a major upset could be brewing.
Mangini said the Patriots threw a number of different looks at Schaub throughout the course of the game, but the quarterback's surprising mobility caught them off guard.
"We weren't expecting that," Mangini said. "He moved so much better than we thought. He got out of the pocket, he accelerated, he was poised. He was essentially a rookie, but he wasn't flustered at all.
"We brought a lot of different pressures -- secondary pressure, linebacker pressure -- and he did well against all of them."
Even though Schaub's numbers were outstanding (18-of-34, 298 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INT), the quarterback across the field trumped him on that day.
After the Falcons tied the game, the Patriots' Bethel Johnson ran the kickoff back 30 yards to the New England 36-yard line. Then Tom Brady went to work. He hit Deion Branch for a long pass play, drew an interference call on another ball to Branch and benefited from a key 15-yard run from Patrick Pass.
Finally, with just 0:17 left on the game clock, Brady turned things over to kicker Adam Vinatieri, who drilled the 29-yard field goal to win it.
"Schaub was really good, but what I remember about that game is walking off the field ticked off," Crumpler said. "I remember thinking, 'This is what the Patriots do. They kick a field goal to win it and go home. It's just what happens.'"
In spite of the loss, Schaub's performance under pressure against an elite team became the seminal moment of his young career. Mangini was so impressed that when he became coach of the New York Jets in January 2006, he immediately initiated talks with the Falcons in an attempt to acquire Schaub.
"I was hoping we might steal him for a third-round pick because he was still relatively unknown," Mangini said.
The Texans ended up trading for Schaub in March 2007 for a pair of second-round picks and a swap of first-round picks. It was a deal that turned the fortunes of their young franchise.
Warren, a Texas native, followed the young QB closely after his arrival in Houston. Schaub's teammates praised him for his attention to detail, ability to audible and surprising dexterity when fleeing the pocket.
Schaub faced the Patriots just one other time, on Jan. 3, 2010. It was the final regular-season game, and the lasting image that day for New England fans was the devastating first-quarter knee injury suffered by Wes Welker on a seemingly harmless cut in a game of no real significance to the Patriots.
The Patriots blew a 27-13 fourth-quarter lead and lost 34-27. Schaub again put up respectable numbers (24-of-39, 303 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT), although he threw a costly interception that Darius Butler returned 91 yards for a touchdown.
Crumpler said he has watched his former teammate evolve into a confident leader with an excellent presence in the game.
"I went up to visit [the Texans] during their bye week and I spent some time with [backup quarterback] T.J. Yates," Crumpler said. "All he talked about was how much he's learned from Matt. That's why the Texans were able to win a playoff game with Yates in there last year. Schaub was on crutches, but he was still out there coaching and teaching his teammate. You can't do that unless you have a clear understanding of what's going on."
Schaub may have surprised the Patriots back in 2005, but there is ample film on him now for Belichick and his defense to dissect.
"I'm sure the Patriots have a much better sense of who he is now," Warren said. "There's a whole book out there on him now. Rest assured, Bill and his staff have read the whole thing and have broken it down to manipulate what Schaub does."
Crumpler's lone season in New England in 2010 exposed him to the attention to detail that, in his opinion, separates the Patriots from other franchises.
"I remember when we were playing the Colts, I sat in on the [defensive] meeting to prepare for Peyton Manning," Crumpler said. "I couldn't believe it. They knew exactly what they had to do. They broke down every single one of his snaps, every detail, every tendency.
"I'm sure they've been doing the same with Schaub."
One trend the Patriots surely have been tracking is Schaub's increase in targeting receiver Andre Johnson downfield in recent weeks. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Schaub targeted Johnson for a pass of 10 or more yards an average of just 3.3 times per contest through the first nine games, but in the past three games has looked for Johnson downfield an average of 7.3 times per game.
In those first nine games, when passing for 10 yards or more, Schaub was 13-of-30 with an average of 9 yards per attempt, but in the past three games those numbers have improved to 15-of-22 with an average of 16.1 yards per attempt.
This will be Schaub's first visit to Gillette Stadium -- in fact, it's the only NFL site he hasn't played in. Asked earlier this week what he remembered about his breakout day in 2005, Schaub answered, "Definitely fond memories. I remember giving Tom Brady a little too much time for the two-minute drill to go down and kick a field goal to beat us, so I do remember that pretty well."
Mangini believes Schaub and the Texans represent a tall order for Belichick and the Patriots' defense.
"It's going to be hard," Mangini said. "[The Texans] use a stretched-out running game, which is challenging. It's different than what you see week in and week out.
"They build play-action passes off of it, and it makes those plays so much more effective. The secondary and the linebackers come screaming up to stop the running game and it leaves these voids in the middle of the field.
"The way their sets are, the actual runs look so similar. They can block it downfield for the running game, and guys keep creeping up more and more.
"It's a natural progression. The Texans are going 4, 5 yards upfield [running the ball] and the defense gets tired of it. They say, 'I'm going to shut this down' and they go in after it and they throw it over your head downfield."
So, is Matt Schaub an elite quarterback right now?
"It's so hard to give anyone that label," Mangini answered. "We had conversations about Eli Manning for years. He had to win two Super Bowls before people gave him that.
"I will tell you this: He's made some real impressive throws, like a couple of deep balls against Denver off his back foot with pressure in his face and he threw it 50 yards on a rope."
Schaub didn't appear concerned about the trappings of playing his first game at Gillette Stadium, which has proven to be one of the more difficult environments in the league.
"We play in some hostile, tough places, so this won't be any different for us," he said.
His coming-out party is ancient history, and he is no longer a no-name upstart. The Texans are in control of the AFC playoff picture, but they know there are still those who aren't quite convinced they have the mettle to win it all.
A win against Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots would go a long way toward cementing the reputation of both Matt Schaub and his Texans team.