FOXBORO -- The Patriots have a championship defense.
On Monday night against one of the league’s elite offenses, the New England defense was immense, dominating a team that entered the game second in the league in points per game (29.3 points per game), fourth in the league in total offense (389.6 yards per game), sixth in the league in rushing offense (142.5 yards per game) and 10th in the league in passing (247.1 yards per game).
The Patriots limited Houston to just 14 points, 100 yards rushing and 247 yards passing. The Texans crossed the New England 30-yard line just once in the first half, and didn’t get into the Patriots’ red zone until it was 28-0 midway through the third quarter. Eight of Houston’s 13 drives went for four plays or less, and the Texans were 4-for-14 on third down and 0-for-2 on fourth down. It all contributed to New England’s thunderous 42-14 win over the Texans in front of a sold-out Gillette Stadium crowd Monday night in Foxboro (click HERE for the complete recap).
“We got good contributions from everybody. The players did a good job,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick when asked about the play of the New England defense against the Texans. “We had some third-and-longs, which was a big part of playing better on first and second down. We rushed, we covered, we tackled. I thought we were physical out there. We played a good, solid football game in all three phases.”
They will never be confused with the 2003 Patriots, the 2000 Ravens or the 1985 Bears, but by whatever metric you want to use, this is a defense that’s peaking at the right time, particularly when you have a world-class offense at the ready to paper over any deficiencies you might have. Consider that, with each succeeding game over the last five weeks, the Patriots have held their opponents to fewer points than the week before. (Beginning with Nov. 11, opposing offenses have scored 31, 24, 19, 16 and now 14 points against New England.) And the Patriots have held their last three opponents to a combined 10-for-37 on third down.
“You know, we feel like we just have to keep improving,” said safety Devin McCourty, who came away with a first-half interception. “What everyone says [is] what everyone’s got to say -- we know we’re a good defense here. We know we’ve played really well the last couple of weeks, and the biggest focus for us is just trying to build on that and keep it going.
“Our focus is to try to keep getting turnovers. We had a couple more chances today that we really need to take advantage of, but that was just a big turnover at that point in the game, just to get our offense back on the field. We talk about it all the time, but if we get the offense the ball when they’re hot they can put up a lot of points fast, so we just try to keep doing it.”
If the 2012 Patriots defense will be remembered for anything, it’s an uncanny ability to force turnovers. McCourty’s pick -- the one takeaway on the night for New England -- came midway through the first quarter with the Patriots holding a 7-0 lead. Sitting at the New England 21, Houston quarterback Matt Schaub fired a ball meant for wide receiver Kevin Walter in the end zone, but McCourty made a great read, cutting in front of the receiver to make the play.
The next time the Texans would get as close to the end zone, they would be down 28-0.
“They’re pretty good,” sighed Houston coach Gary Kubiak after the game.
Indeed, the Patriots are pretty good at the right time, and have to now be considered the AFC favorites for several reasons: They have a legitimate shot at 13-3, which would land them one of the top two seeds in the postseason. (There’s still a shot they could take home the top spot, if they get some help.) Then, there’s the fact that with last night’s one takeaway, they are +24 when it comes to turnover differential. And with three games left, they have a clear path to a +30 finish. Every other NFL team that reached that plateau made it all the way to the championship game:
1983 Redskins: +43. Lost in Super Bowl.
1946 Browns: +33. Champions.
1958 Colts. +30. Champions.
1963 Bears. +29. Champions.
1960 Browns. +28. Missed playoffs.
2010 Patriots. +28. Lost division playoff.
2011 49ers. +28. Lost conference championship.
1959 Colts. +26. Champions.
1941 Packers. +26. Lost championship game.
1990 Chiefs. +26. Lost wild card playoff.
1943 Packers. +25. Missed playoffs.
1997 Giants. +25. Lost wild card playoff.
No, they may not be perfect. But in this era of wide open offenses and a watered-down AFC -- and with their own offense continuing to put up record numbers -- what the New England defense is doing right now is certainly more than enough to have them playing deep into January.
Here are nine other things we leaned about the Patriots Monday night:
TOM BRADY IS BACK IN THE MVP CONVERSATION
The quarterback had some slippage in his game the last two weeks, but he started out against the Texans on fire, looking for all the world like a man who was tired of hearing the hosannas that had been heaped on Houston all week. At one point in the first half, he was 11 for 13 for 154 yards and three touchdowns, and while he cooled a bit down the stretch and ended up 21-for-35 for 296 yards and four touchdowns, his was the sort of performance that can reignite the MVP debate. (Asked who he would vote for if he had an MVP vote, Brady smiled. “If I did? That’s a hypothetical. We don’t answer hypotheticals at the Patriots. [Bill] Belichick would stand up here and say, ‘You moron. Why would you answer a hypothetical question like that?’”) He was at his best at the end of the third quarter and start of the fourth when he helped assemble a nine-play, 72-yard drive that ended with a fluky touchdown (Brandon Lloyd recovered the ball in the end zone after a Danny Woodhead fumble) that made it 35-7. On that series, he scrambled up the middle for a six-yard gain, one that was punctuated by a fist pump at the end of the run that brought the crowd to its feet.
Quote: “I don’t run too often, so I’ve got to show them that I can still do it a little bit. I was pretty fired up at that point. That was a big moment in the game. I’m happy we got the first down. ... I’m not like RGIII there or anything, but I can make a first down.” -- Brady on why he was so fired up after his scramble.
AARON HERNANDEZ AND BRANDON LLOYD STEPPED UP NICELY
On a night where Rob Gronkowski likely would have gotten a bunch of targets against a depleted Houston secondary, both tight end Aaron Hernandez and wide receiver Brandon Lloyd -- both of whom have had an up-and-down season -- had big games. Hernandez had a team-high eight catches (on 11 targets) for 58 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Meanwhile, Lloyd bounced back nicely after a subpar week against the Dolphins to finish with seven catches (on nine targets) for 89 yards and a touchdown. While their pure numbers were nice, they both proved to be quick to the ball with timely fumble recoveries: Hernandez recovered a first-quarter fumble from teammate Stevan Ridley that kept a Patriots’ drive alive, while Lloyd pounced on a fumble from Danny Woodhead in the end zone in the second half that ensured a New England touchdown.
Quote: “He had a great game -- [he] made some real critical plays and catches. I have a ton of confidence in him. I’m not worried about that, [him] going over the middle. He made some other big plays, one on the pass interference that got called back. He made another big play coming across the middle. I have a lot of confidence in Brandon. He did a great job.” -- Brady on Lloyd’s performance.
AQIB TALIB ALLOWS THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE TO DO THINGS THEY DIDN’T DO BEFORE
It was clear from the jump that Talib was assigned the task of slowing down wide receiver Andre Johnson. For the bulk of the first half, it was Talib and Johnson, and until he went down with a hip injury, the cornerback did well against the receiver. Johnson had four catches for 58 yards in the first half while working against Talib, and ended with eight catches for 95 yards. Impressive numbers, but he didn’t have an impact when the game was on the line. Talib didn’t return to the game after getting injured, but was seen on the sidelines in the second half, bouncing around and showing a good range of motion. (In his place, rookie Alfonzo Dennard picked up much of the slack against Johnson, and ended with a pass defensed and four solo tackles of his own.) While Talib swings and misses, his ability to work in single coverage against a talent like Johnson is something the New England pass defense has been missing for several years.
Quote: “Some things, but a lot of things that we do are very similar to what we’ve been doing all year. As you guys know, each week around here things can always change -- we can do some different things. I think his ability as a football player to learn things [like] new concepts -- just like everyone else out there -- enables us to do those things.” -- McCourty on whether or not Talib allows the New England defense to do some things it didn’t before.
THE PATRIOTS KNOW HOW TO RUN PLAY ACTION
The Texans came into Monday night’s game one of the best teams in the league when it came to successfully operating play-action, but the New England defenders -- particularly the defensive backs and linebackers -- did an excellent job of not biting on the Houston play fakes. In fact, it was the Patriots’ offense that did the best job operating out of play-action, with the biggest gain coming when Brady hit Lloyd on a sweet 37-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, a play that came about because Brady delivered a play-action fake so impressive that both Texans’ safeties bit hard on the play, leaving Lloyd wide open on the back end for the touchdown.
Quote: “When you’re running the ball, you can use play-action. We scored on that one to Brandon. We had a few other pretty critical plays trying to fake to the run, and you can get some great separation on the defense when that happens, and we did a great job of that.” -- Brady on the Patriots ability to operate in play action against Houston.
THE PATRIOTS CAN NEUTRALIZE J.J. WATT
The defensive lineman had his moments -- including one unbelievable second-half sequence where he chased running back Danny Woodhead down from behind and punched the ball away to force a fumble. But with the game in the balance, Watt was pretty much a non-factor. There were moments of feistiness, but he didn’t have a sack or a pass defensed on the night -- it marked his first game since Nov. 11 where he was held without a sack. Watt, who moved around the defensive line and played out of several gaps, ended with four tackles (two solo), three quarterback hits and the forced fumble. While he was able to get some good shots on Brady in the second half, he wasn’t the game-changing monster he had been over the first 12 games of the season.
Quote: “He’s a good player and he’s got a good skill set and he’s a relentless guy. I think he fits that defense perfect, the way they run it.” -- offensive lineman Logan Mankins on Watt.
THIRD DOWN IS WHERE YOU MAKE YOUR MONEY IN THIS LEAGUE
The Texans entered the game as the best team in the league when it came to third-down defense, but the Patriots became just the second team all season to convert at least a 50 percent clip against them, picking up 6 of their 12 opportunities, including going 4-for-7 in the second half. Conversely, one of the reasons New England was able to limit the Houston offense was because the Patriots were dominant on third down -- the Texans were just 4-for-14 (29 percent) on third down, including 2-for-8 in the first half.
Quote: “We always talk about improving on third down and getting off the field. Any time we can get the ball in our offense’s hands, we feel like they’ll go out there and score 40 points like they did today. So it was a good third down conversion rate, and something to build on.” -- Mayo on New England’s third-down defense against the Texans.
VINCE WILFORK SHOULD BE AN ALL-PRO
On a night where many tuned in to see J.J. Watt, it was Wilfork who stole the show. In what was just the latest in a long line of stellar performances this season, the defensive lineman was a colossal reason that the Texans were never able to get their run game going. Against one of the best offenses in the league, he gummed up the middle and routinely occupied two and three blockers while allowing his teammates to make plays. (Foster had 46 yards on 15 carries, a 3.1 yards per carry average. In terms of total yardage, it was his third-lowest output of the season.) In the end, Wilfork, finished with four tackles (three solo), to go along with one sack for 20 yards, one pass defensed and one forced fumble.
Quote: “From the first quarter on, he was making plays, making tackles, batting balls. He had a little J.J. Watt swat there at one point in the game, and it was good for us. He went out there and played from the first snap on and you can’t ask for anything more.” -- Mayo on Wilfork’s performance against the Texans.
RIGHT NOW, IT LOOKS LIKE WES WELKER WILL WORK AS PUNT RETURNER
With Julian Edelman on the shelf for the rest of the season, Wes Welker served as New England’s primary punt returner Monday night against the Texans, and provided a boost early when he helped deliver a 31-yard return that gave the Patriots a relatively short field to work with on their first series. (New England took advantage, as Brady and the Patriots went 56 yards in seven plays for their first touchdown of the game.) Welker ended up returning punts and kicks for New England, and will likely have a large role in both going forward for the rest of the season. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Patriots decide to curtail his offensive reps slightly as a result. (For what it’s worth, Welker ended up with three catches on nine targets for 52 yards against the Texans -- in terms of receptions, it tied his lowest output of the season. He had four drops on the night.)
Quote: “Just a couple bad plays. You’ve got to move on from the next ones and keep your confidence going and not let it get in your head. I didn’t do a very good job of that tonight and I’ve just got to work on it this week and come back stronger next week.” -- Welker on his drops against the Texans.
THE TEXANS NOW HAVE SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT
They strolled into Gillette Stadium in their sharp new letterman’s jackets, walking into what veteran receiver Andre Johnson called the most important contest in franchise history. But the game couldn’t have gone worse for the Texans, who suffered a 28-point beatdown on a national stage, and left open the possibility that the Patriots could still sneak past them for the No. 1 seed. (New England fans will be rooting hard for the Colts down the stretch, as Indy still has two games with Houston.) Regardless of what happened, the Patriots and Houston should still meet in the postseason -- they are the two best teams in the AFC. If that’s the case, the Texans can point to the 2010 Jets as evidence that they can turn things around. (That year, the Patriots crushed the Jets at Gillette in December, 45-3, but lost in a home playoff game a month later.) But you have to figure that a young Houston team is going to spend the next few days questioning themselves -- particularly whether or not it has the mental toughness to make a serious postseason run in the wake of what happened to them Monday night at Gillette Stadium.
Quotes: “We know how important this game was to us. It was a good ass whipping, and that’s pretty much it.” -- Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson.
“They showed us what it takes to be a champion.” -- Texans linebacker Bradie James.