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Ducking to get a feel for the Patriots

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff  December 11, 2012 09:07 AM

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Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.

Whoa.

As convincing a win as the New England Patriots’ 42-14 beatdown of the Houston Texans was Monday night, it’s a wee bit necessary to pump the brakes a bit. Clearly, the Texans are not the caliber of a team everyone assumed them to be heading into the AFC showdown, and clearly, no titles are decided in December.

Yes, yes, Tom Brady was magnificent. Vince Wilfork was a dominant beast. And Brandon Lloyd catching a touchdown pass down the middle? A cats and dogs living together moment.

But in the end, what did it all prove? The win put New England one step closer to sealing one of the two AFC playoff byes. It put them in better position to seal home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. It convinced a national TV audience that the Patriots remain the class of the NFL.

So…I suppose there’s all that.

Still, you knew the moment we discovered about those silly varsity jackets the Texans toted to Foxborough it was all over. Give the Patriots any semblance of a reason to feel they’re being disrespected and they’re going to utilize it to their advantage. The Texans looked like the big men on a high school campus - realizing they’re not all that in their first month of college.

What an embarrassment. A complete and utter embarrassment.

Until last night, the worst stain Houston had on the NFL was its disastrous attempt at hosting a Super Bowl. What was supposed to be a litmus test for New England turned into one of the most confounding collapses of the NFL season. I’m pretty sure that even Mark Sanchez was shaking his head at Matt Schaub’s performance last night, and he, as we can’t stress enough times, is a quarterback that ran into his offensive lineman’s backside.

So, what are the Texans? Are they the clichéd paper tigers of the NFL? Not to break it down with ultimate simplicity, but: Yup.

Still, at 11-2, the Texans remain in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 seed, and they’ve had quality wins over Denver, Baltimore, and Chicago, so perhaps it’s foolish to discount them. Maybe, just maybe, the Patriots are that good. New England was the beneficiary of a few calls last night, sure, most notably the phantom pass interference against Wes Welker (Memo: Pay the man now, Bob), and let’s not discount the fact that they put up 42 points on one of the statistically better defenses in the NFL – without either Rob Gronkowski or Julian Edelman.

Since hitting rock bottom against the Buffalo Bills in November, the Patriots’ defense has gone on to allow 24, 19, 16, and 14 points respectively. That’s what some might call a pattern. Yet the biggest test of all lingers Sunday night when the San Francisco 49ers arrive for the most anticipated game of the year. If the Patriots can offensively do to that defense even a sniff of what they accomplished Monday night, everybody else is on notice.

But, sorry. As dominant as the Pats were last night, it was clearly men against boys. Veterans vs. lettermen. Contenders vs. pretenders. The Hub of the universe vs…..well, Houston.

It was easy to reminisce Monday night about when Shannon Sharpe called the president to send in the National Guard because his Broncos were “killing the Patriots” in 1996. If I recall correctly, that Denver team didn’t go to New Orleans while the Patriots did. Confidence can breed complacency, so let’s not assume an impressive performance as we’re just coming off decides anything.

Then again, Bill Belichick isn’t exactly Mike Shanahan. As much praise as the coach gets for the 2008 Brady-less season, we’re coming to a point here where we could argue that this is Belichick’s best coaching job of his career. Maybe it’s easy with the offensive weapons at his disposal, but make no mistake, this New England defense, as porous as a wet napkin for the bulk of the season, has improved dramatically since Belichick took a more participatory role in coaching that side of the ball.

As for Brady, any MVP voter who watched that game last night and doesn’t vote for the Patriots quarterback is a dope. Maybe Gronkowski returns in time for San Francisco. Maybe the Patriots run the table. Maybe they host a pair of playoff games. Maybe they end up in New Orleans on Feb. 3. Maybe they raise Lombardi for a fourth time.

Ah, hell. Get the duck boats ready.

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About the Author

Eric Wilbur is a Boston.com sports columnist who is still in awe of what Dana Kiecker pulled off that one time in Toronto. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and three children. Comments and suggestions for the best Buffalo wing spots are encouraged.

Contact Eric Wilbur by e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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