Letterman jackets and ‘Homecoming’ an indelible part of Patriots-Texans history

"I don't want to bring that back up at all. Those were some bad days."

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The Patriots are 8-1 all-time against the Texans, including two playoff victories. Despite Houston edge defender Whitney Mercilus’ claim that his team is “better” than New England, history between the two franchises has been statistically one-sided in the other direction.

On Sunday, the Patriots welcome the Texans to Gillette Stadium for another round of the AFC matchup. Inevitably, some of the pregame focus will be on the relationship between the two interconnected coaching staffs. Yet it was Texans’ coach Bill O’Brien’s predecessor, Gary Kubiak, who presided over some of the notable clashes in Patriots-Texans history. The 2012-2013 period is a particular chapter that stands out. It included an infamous decision to travel to Foxborough wearing high school-style letterman jackets.

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On its own, the choice of travel apparel seems inconsequential, but the letterman jackets came to symbolize one of the most decisive team collapses in recent history. Entering the game with their customized Texans jackets in tow, Houston stood an impressive 11-1. Decimated by Patriots for 48 excruciating minutes, the Texans fell into a tailspin that eventually cost Kubiak his job, sending the team – seen by some as 2013 Super Bowl contenders – into a losing streak that culminated with the first pick in the 2014 draft.

It’s a period of time that Texans fans would probably like to forget. The same is true of the players, including defensive lineman J.J. Watt.

“Those are some bad memories,” Watt said during a 2016 press conference reflecting on the 2012-2013 debacles against the Patriots.

Originally, it was just a fun idea that was meant to symbolize the collective commitment to winning. And had the 2012 Monday Night game against the Patriots gone differently, maybe the concept would have taken hold.

With only one loss entering Week 14, Houston was enjoying its best season in franchise history. Defensive starters Shaun Cody and Connor Barwin wanted to celebrate the team’s collective identity. Barwin explained his thought process on the letterman jackets in a quote to the Houston Chronicle before the game in New England:

I used to say before the season it feels like we’re on a college team. Everybody gets along, we have so much fun. And this jacket, you feel like you’re on a high school team where it’s all about winning, it’s all about being around a group of guys. This jacket is just another symbol of that. There are no names on it. You just have your number, your position group and the Texans logo.

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When the Texans travelled to New England, they wore the jackets along with a high school-style dress code:

WR @AJohnson1500 #Texans #Lettermen

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Leading up to the clash with the Patriots, the Texans had reason to be confident. Kubiak’s team had a two-game lead in the race to clinch the top seed in the AFC (and home-field advantage). In October, the Texans systemically dismantled the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens, 43-13. And Watt was on his way to winning Defensive Player of the Year.

Of course, it did not end well for the jacket-clad Texans.

Houston only managed to put points on the board against the Patriots midway through the third quarter in the Monday Night spotlight. By that point, Tom Brady and the New England offense had produced a 28-0 lead. The 42-14 final score ended the Texans’ six-game winning streak.

While the loss might not have been the cause of future problems, it was nonetheless the first in a line of December disappointments. They would lose the final two games of the regular season, meaning that there would be no first round bye.

Having handed home-field advantage back to the Patriots, Kubiak’s team was forced to travel back to New England for the Divisional Round of the playoffs. The season, which at one point had carried so much promise, dissolved in an anticlimactic 41-28 loss. The final scoreline added respectability to a game where the Patriots led 38-13 at one point in the fourth quarter.

In the 2013 offseason, Houston again added a gimmicky tone to the matchup with the Patriots. Reaching back into the high school theme for a second time, the Texans decreed that the Dec. 1 game against New England would be its “Homecoming.”

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“Bill Belichick’s Patriots have found motivation from far flimsier source material before,” wrote NFL Network’s Gregg Rosenthal.

By the time the game actually happened, Houston’s season was in tatters. After winning the opening two games of with dramatic comebacks, a losing streak began that lasted weeks and, eventually, months. In that span, Texans quarterbacks collectively set the ignominious record of the most consecutive games with an interception returned for a touchdown (five).

Despite being 2-9, the Texans actually played a tough game against the Patriots during “Homecoming.” Houston led 17-7 at halftime, retaking the lead multiple times in the second half despite interminable New England comebacks. Yet at the end, the Patriots once again emerged victorious, 34-31.

The “Homecoming” had not been a particularly happy one. Within a week, Kubiak – the longest tenured coach in Texans history – was fired.

Before wearing their varsity jackets for the Monday Night game in New England in 2012, the Texans were 11-1. After that – including the 2012 postseason – Houston went 4-18 through the next season.

Asked in 2016 if he still has his jacket, J.J. Watt provided a telling quote.

“I don’t think so. I hope not. I don’t want to bring that back up at all. Those were some bad days.”

Never forget.

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