The road to the Super Bowl just opened a little wider, though the Patriots hardly needed any more incentive to play this Monday night. From the very start of this NFL season, Weeks 14 and 15 were the gauntlet that could validate these Patriots. And now they are here.
Finally, it's Game Day.
As it turns out, the Patriots have even more at stake than originally anticipated, the Washington Redskins having graciously delivered to New England what every team covets: its own fate. The Patriots woke up on Sunday morning needing help to secure a bye in the AFC playoff structure. They awoke on Monday with complete independence. Thanks to Washington's victory over the fading Baltimore Ravens, a New England victory over the Houston Texans in Week 14 would make the Patriots the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff structure with only three weeks remaining in the regular season.
The only team ahead of the Patriots? The Texans, who soon may similarly feel New England's breath on its shoulders.
This game did not need any additional meaning, of course, at least not to the Patriots. The Texans are 11-1. The Patriots are 9-3. And yet, the won-lost records have arguably less to do with the importance of this game than the psychological (it)implications(end), perhaps for both teams.
Simply put, many are expecting the Texans and Patriots to meet again in the postseason, perhaps in the AFC Championship Game. Maybe that is why Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson recently suggested that Monday night's meeting was the biggest game in the history of the Houston franchise. (A stretch, but noteworthy nonetheless.) The Patriots, as much as we dissect them, remain the consummate NFL measuring stick for those teams who want to go where Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have gone, who want to be what the Patriots have been.
And yet, for the Patriots, the game holds similar value. For all that Belichick and Brady have accomplished in their time together, The Patriots are 6-6 in their last 12 playoff games after opening 10-0 during the Brady-Belichick Era, dropping three of the four championship games in which they have played (the 2006 AFC title game, the 2007 and 2011 Super Bowls).
The Patriots have been very, very good in the last five or six seasons.
They just haven't been quite good enough.
And so now here come the Texans, who have been the best team in the AFC this season from the very start of the year. Houston opened the year 5-0, lost, won six straight since. They are perhaps the most balanced team in the AFC. The Texans rank third in the AFC in rushing yards, third in passer rating, third in total defense and fourth in points allowed. They are a team that will require the Patriots to excel in all areas, which brings us to the most obvious checkpoint of the night.
The Patriots defense.
Since the acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib, the New England defense has looked like an improved group. Against Indianapolis and Miami, the Patriots held the opponent to a quarterback rating under 70. Against the New York Jets in the first half - by which point the Patriots had built a 35-3 lead - the Patriots held Mark Sanchez to a rating below 60. All the while, Belichick has become more creative and aggressive with blitzes and coverages, the Patriots looking far more like the team we have grown accustomed to seeing over the last 12 years.
We know the Patriots can play with the Texans, so that is hardly the point. What we do not know is if the Patriots can beat the Texans, particularly when New England's early-season difficulties revealed an inability to make clutch plays at critical times. The final drive of the Miami game suggested some improvement in this area, but the Dolphins are a 5-8 football team, not an 8-5 one.
Offensively, too, the Patriots have some things to prove in this game, and not solely in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. In recent years, the vaunted New England offense has struggled some against the more physical and effective defenses - and the Texans qualify. (Another such test, against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, awaits.) The Patriots just don't win the lower-scoring games quite like they used to, a fact that reflects on the inability of the new England offense to deliver at critical times just as surely as it does on the defense's inability to get off the field.
All of that brings us back to this week, to the Texans and then the Niners, two teams whom many picked this season to represent their respective conferences in the Super Bowl. Since the NFL schedule was released earlier this year, these two games have stood out on the New England schedule as an obvious highlight. With last week's win at Miami, the Patriots are now an astonishing 46-7 in December/January regular season games since the start of the 2001 season, asn NFL-best record that suggests New England is playing its best football at that time of year when it matters most.
Starting on Monday night, over the next seven days, we find out if that is also true in 2012.
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