FOXBOROUGH — Monday night was as big a regular-season game as Gillette Stadium has seen in some time. The Patriots were looking to solidify the No. 2 seed in the AFC against the team with best record in the conference, Houston.
The atmosphere was set for a showdown – but it became clear early on that the game was less like a showdown and more like the Patriots showing off.
On the way to a 42-14 domination of the visitors, New England reasserted its status as a top team not just in the AFC but in the NFL, and Tom Brady may have sewn up yet another MVP award.
And Houston, which had unveiled high school style lettermen’s jackets this week, went back to Texas looking more like pretenders to the throne than potential prom kings.
“That’s a good locker room in there right now,’’ a satisfied coach Bill Belichick said after the big win. “The guys feel real good about the way they played, and they should. The players did a heck of a job tonight, all the way across the board.
“The players, this is a long week for them. It was a lot of preparation. It was a lot of getting ready for a team we hadn’t played in a couple years; that is a real good football team with a lot of good football players. But those guys worked hard all week and it definitely showed up tonight. I’ll take my hat off to the job they did.’’
It isn’t often that the Patriots admit such a thing, but linebacker Jerod Mayo said the players came into this game determined to prove something.
“I finally feel like we put together four quarters of football,’’ the cocaptain said. “We came into this game with a chip on our shoulders, everyone talking about the Houston Texans. We always talk about ignoring the noise, but you hear it. You hear it walking down the street.
“It was a little bit of a motivating factor for me, at least. I’m sure the rest of the guys felt the same way.’’
In claiming an early three-touchdown lead, the Patriots did what they do when they’re at their best: they capitalized on opponent mistakes.
On New England’s first possession, Houston — possessor of the league’s best third-down defense entering the night — had a stop on third and 6 when Brady couldn’t link up on a deep ball to Matthew Slater, who got a rare snap with the offense.
But Brandon Harris, the little-used second-year cornerback charged with keeping tabs on Wes Welker, was flagged for holding Welker, giving the Patriots a fresh set of downs.
Brady found Welker for a 25-yard gain and a goal-to-go situation, and Aaron Hernandez saved Stevan Ridley’s bacon when he recovered a Ridley goal-line fumble.
Hernandez, lined up in the backfield and with linebacker Bradie James in coverage, had his hustle rewarded when Brady hit him for the game’s opening touchdown from 7 yards.
Just when it looked as if Houston had things going on its next possession, with a screen pass to Justin Forsett gaining 14 yards, a completion to tight end Owen Daniels gaining 12, and a 24-yard completion to Lestar Jean on third and 12 putting the offense well inside Patriots territory, there was another mistake.
Schaub had Foster uncovered in the middle of the field but instead looked to the end zone and Kevin Walter. Steve Gregory was behind Walter but a fast-closing Devin McCourty got in front of Walter and got his hands on the ball for his fourth interception of the season.
Starting from his 18, Brady moved the offense 82 yards in a mere six plays, with Brandon Lloyd coming up with a 14-yard catch on third and 10 to keep things moving forward.
Three plays later, Lloyd, who had one catch a week earlier in Miami, found himself all alone when he dusted corner Johnathan Joseph and the Texans safeties, who bit on the play-action, weren’t there to provide any help.
The 37-yarder was Lloyd’s first touchdown since his two-catch, two-score game in London against the Rams.
“Houston is a team that really does well from ahead and we wanted to make sure that we came out and we were playing well early,’’ Welker said.
The Texans had outscored opponents, 78-49, in the first quarter entering the game and 201-102 in the first half this season; Monday night was the first time they’d been shut out in the opening two quarters.
The New England defense, keyed by Vince Wilfork, did a fantastic job on Foster, holding him to 46 yards on 15 carries. While J.J. Watt’s propensity for batting down passes at the line of scrimmage has drawn a lot of attention, both Wilfork and Chandler Jones, returning after a sprained ankle, had a swat in the game.
The Patriots then were the beneficiaries of a generous defensive pass interference call, again on third down, which allowed the offense to stay on the field and put more points on the board.
Brady threw deep for Welker on the left sideline. The pass looked like an overthrow, but safety Danieal Manning bumped Welker, Welker did some acting, and the flag was thrown, a 36-yard penalty.
Two completions to Welker put the Patriots at the doorstep of the end zone once again. On first down, as Hernandez jogged into his spot outside left, he noticed Manning and Darryl Sharpton still discussing who should cover the tight end, and he signaled to Brady.
Brady called for the snap, took a step back, and hit Hernandez from 4 yards before Manning could get into coverage, making it 21-0.
Likely fearing that things might get out of hand, Texans coach Gary Kubiak, who is the team’s offensive play-caller, went for it twice on fourth down in the second quarter.
It looked like the first attempt was good – Schaub put the ball right on Walter’s hands but the receiver couldn’t hang onto it as he was knocked out of bounds.
And by the end of the night, the Patriots had even found a way to capitalize on their own mistakes: Watt, who got some hits on Brady but didn’t make any impactful plays, punched the ball out of Danny Woodhead’s arms from behind at the tail end of what had been a pretty run from the third-down back; Lloyd took the ball off one hop and landed in the end zone for a fumble recovery touchdown.