FOXBOROUGH — The Houston Texans showed up at Gillette Stadium Sunday night adorned in letterman jackets purchased just for the occasion, an attempt at a unifying sartorial gesture masterminded by Shaun Cody and Connor Barwin, and possibly Joe Maddon.
So much for dressing for success. Forty-two Patriots points and 60 minutes of embarrassment later, the Texans departed looking like a rag-tag junior varsity, having been put in their place by the big man on campus who has embarrassed so many other wannabes before. The lesson, delivered in blunt fashion by Tom Brady once and again, was this: Good idea buying those jackets, fellas. Because I think we all know you’re not earning one at my expense.
Brady threw for 296 yards and four touchdowns without an interception, Aaron Hernandez had a pair of scoring receptions, and an improving defense stalled the Texans’ potent offense as the Patriots scored the game’s first 28 points en route to a 42-14 victory over Houston (11-2), the top seed in the AFC.
Well, for now. The Patriots (10-3) are No. 2 in the current AFC standings. But Monday they proved they are the team to beat.
“That’s a good locker room in there right now,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick during his postgame press conference. “Those guys feel real good about the way they played, and they should. The players really did a heck of a job tonight, all the way across the board. We got good contributions from all three phases. I thought these guys really tried to play the game the way we need to play it. Houston is a good a football team, but we just did a few things better than they did tonight.”
That’s about as effusive as Belichick gets, but it’s understandable — even with the tough 49ers due in Sunday and so much still at stake, this is a victory worth savoring. Sure, the Texans may have arrived at Gillette Stadium dressed like they were paying homage to “Happy Days” and confident Monday night would be just that, but the visitors did not try to hide the importance of this game in establishing their credibility as a true contender.
Wide receiver Andre Johnson suggested it was the biggest game in franchise history, a curious statement given the Texans played two playoff games last season, but indicative of how Houston valued the chance to make a statement against the perennially championship-contending Patriots.
The Texans’ reputation would have been made with a win. They’d have been branded as The Team To Beat. Instead, it was the Patriots who made a statement, one that has been building through their seven consecutive victories since that silly loss in Seattle: The road to the Super Bowl goes through Foxborough. Again? You’d better believe it.
Brady affably refused to acknowledge as much after the game, but this victory had the feel of a message game. At their best during this extraordinary 11-season-and-still-going run, the Patriots have found tremendous motivation and satisfaction in putting a supposed contender — particularly one that talks a lot or is getting credit for things it hasn’t yet accomplished — in its place. In style and substance, it reminded me of a win the 2003-2004 teams so often put together en route to an eventual celebration beneath a sky of falling confetti.
Brady was so pumped up after his 37-yard touchdown pass to the unjustly maligned Brandon Lloyd to cap a brutally efficient six-play, 82-yard first-quarter drive to put the Patriots up 14-0 that you’d have thought yappy former Steeler Anthony Smith was in coverage. He was even more animated after he ran for six yards on third and 5 to keep a drive alive on the final play of the third quarter. This meant more than the usual W, though he wasn’t about to admit it.
“I don’t run too often, so I’ve got to show them I can do it a little bit. I was pretty fired up at that point,” Brady said. A couple of questions later, he denied that there was any motivation to be found in the hype surrounding the Texans. “Well, they deserve it,” he said after leading the Patriots to 419 total yards, 27 first-downs, and a 50 percent conversion rate on third down. “They’re a good team, so they deserve a lot of the credit.”
Meanwhile, Belichick dismissed the question of whether Brady is the Most Valuable Player in a way only Donald Trump’s good buddy Bob can. “I don’t know,” Belichick said. “We don’t play everybody in the league. He’s our quarterback and we’re glad we’ve got him.”
OK then. Let’s turn to Texans coach Gary Kubiak, who knows brilliant quarterback play when he sees it, having backed up and later served as the offensive coordinator for John Elway in Denver as well as winning a championship as the QB coach for the 1994 San Francisco 49ers. His appreciation of Brady was more apparent than any disappointment he had in his own team’s performance.
“That’s the type of team they are,” said Kubiak. “They make you look really bad. They’re hurrying up and getting in a formation and if you’re not on top of your stuff, No. 12 is not going to miss it. He doesn’t miss many, and he sure as hell didn’t tonight. That’s what it takes to get to where that team has been for a long time. They did it again tonight. Credit to them.”
If this movie seems familiar, well, it should. What the Patriots are accomplishing now is an enhanced version of what they pulled off last season. The offense, on pace for 581 points, which would be eight shy of the NFL record set in 2007, is more versatile than it is has ever been. Shadow-roster refugees such as Donte’ Stallworth are contributing — he had a 63-yard touchdown reception — and Rob Gronkowski, an offense unto himself, should be back in a week or two.
But it’s not just about the offense; something good is happening on the opportunistic, hard-hitting defense, which is getting extraordinary weekly performances out of Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, while Brandon Spikes sets the physical tone in the way Rodney Harrison or Lawyer Milloy used to. If Aqib Talib’s hip is OK, the pieces are finally in the right places in the secondary, especially now that Devin McCourty is thriving as a play-making safety — his interception in the end zone thwarted Houston’s second drive.
It may not have felt like December in New England — it was 59 degrees at opening kickoff, so who needs a jacket anyway, Barwin? — but the results were the same. The Patriots have now won 20 consecutive games at home in December. This is their time of year, and based on recent performance and results, who’s betting now against us saying the same thing in February?
The only suspense in the second half, if you care about such matters, was the question of when Belichick would relieve Brady, who did take more than the usual amount of hard hits. Let the record show that second-year backup Ryan Mallett got 5 minutes and 9 seconds of playing time.
Whether that’s enough for him to receive the proverbial varsity letter is undetermined. What we do know after this decade-plus of extraordinary success is that here in New England is that such honors are earned, not bought or prematurely bestowed.