Patriots Turn Texans From Contenders To Pretenders

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. —

We probably should have guessed the Houston Texans were in trouble when Andre Johnson called the game the biggest in the history of his franchise. We definitely should have guessed the Texans were in trouble when they decided to wear matching letter jackets for the road trip to New England.

Linebacker Connor Barwin raved that the jackets made the Texans feel like a high school team. Well, if that's the case Houston could have at least sent the varsity. One of the most anticipated games of the NFL season was essentially history after 19 minutes of Monday Night Football.

And when it was mercifully over, when the Patriots had routed the Texans 42-14, even Bill Belichick recognized his team had made a definitive statement. Yes, he was happy his locker room was happy.

"They feel good about the way they played," Belichick said, "and they should."

Four minutes into the second quarter, the Patriots had run 21 plays, scored 21 points and were well on their way to their 21st consecutive victory in the second-half of recent seasons. Tom Brady had thrown the ball 13 times and completed 11 for 154 yards and three touchdowns. If the Texans were going to wear letter jackets, Brady could have worn a surgeon's mask and gown. The Patriots effectively used play-action. Brady got strong protection. J.J. What? The Texans' ballyhooed inside pass rush was left on the outside looking in. Brady put the scalpel to the Texans' balloon in hurry.

Best record in the NFL? Validation for their 11-1 record? Nope. The Texans were exposed. Super Bowl contenders? The Texans were not ready for prime time pikers. And who knew they were going to send the JVs? Or worse, the Astros? This night has to be a huge wallop to the Texans' psyche.

"We came into this game with a chip on our shoulder," Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "Everybody was talking about the Houston Texans. We always talk about ignoring the noise, but you hear it. You hear it walking down the street."

By kickoff, the rain had stopped, but four minutes into the second quarter Aaron Hernandez was making it pour with his open-the-safe and make-it-rain pantomime celebration. The kid from Bristol recovered a fumble by Stevan Ridley to save the Patriots' first drive before catching a 7-yard touchdown pass. And, then, the Texans inexplicably left him uncovered on a 4-yard TD throw by Brady. Between those two scores, a play-action fake to Ridley by Brady had the Texans defense biting and left Brandon Lloyd wide alone for a 37-yard touchdown catch.

"When you're running the ball well, you can use that play-action," Brady said.

By halftime, there was Matt Light, the giant bear of a man who protected Brady's blind side for all those years, being honored by the Patriots. There was Light growling, delightfully, "Are we having any fun tonight?"

Fun? Patriots fans were doubled over yucking it up. Fun? Light was lucky he didn't start a stampede by Patriots fans for plane tickets to New Orleans. Can't you already hear analysts explaining how the Patriots, who have won seven in a row after their 3-3 start, are going to the Super Bowl again? The Texans may hold a one-game lead for No. 1 AFC seed, but who's picking them to win it all now? The good news for the Texans is if they want to drive over to the Superdome in their varsity jackets Feb. 3, gasoline prices dropped dramatically for the 350-mile ride from Houston on I-10.

The Texans whipped the Broncos. The Texans whipped the Ravens. The Texans hadn't lost all season on the road. All good stuff. But under that veneer was a defense that had been far too generous recently. And don't forget Aaron Rodgers of the battle-tested Packers threw six touchdowns on them in a Week 6 rout. Even the Jaguars scored 37 in a loss. After all the hype surrounding J.J. Watt being the most disruptive force in the NFL, he never had a sack, was essentially a non-factor. Vince Wilfork stole the show. In the first half alone, the big man had a sack, forced a fumble and a tackle for loss. Using its stretch-bootleg combo, the Texans rank sixth in rushing offense and 10th in passing yards, yet until a late interception by Ryan Mallett one of the most-balanced offenses in the sport also had only seven points.

"Our defensive line went out there and played well." said Mayo, who led the Patriots with seven tackles. "From the first quarter on, Vince was making plays. Making tackles, batting balls. He even had a little J.J. Watt swat there at one point."

Johnson's take on the biggest game ever for the Texans was a strange one, given that the Texans advanced to the playoffs last season. It demonstrated a telling over-eagerness, didn't it? Made them look a little green. The Patriots had been there before many times. They had done that. Including the playoffs, heck, the Patriots may have played 30 bigger games than this one since the turn of the century.

Over the past two and a half months, the Patriots predictably have come on stronger and stronger. The defense has continued to grow. And now it is December and December means one thing. The Patriots rarely lose. Well, they haven't lost at all in December since 2009. This one was 13 in a row. Amazingly enough they are 43-5 in December since 2001. The Eagles are second best at a distant 35-13.

Brady found Donte' Stallworth, re-signed this week after being released at the end of training camp, behind Brandon Harris for a 63-yard touchdown strike after halftime. And by the time Brady channeled his inner RGIII and scrambled for a first down to end the third quarter, the fans were chanting, "MVP! MVP!"

"I was pretty fired up at that point," Brady said. "I'm not RGIII back there. But at least I'm a little bit of a threat back there."

Everything was going right for the Patriots on this night. When Danny Woodhead wildly fumbled into the end zone, there was Lloyd to recover it for a touchdown. The flood of momentum started early when a key third down stop by Houston was overruled because Harris held Welker at the line of scrimmage. There was Hernandez' drive-saving fumble recovery. There was a 26-yard gain on a marginal — at best — pass interference call against Danieal Manning on Welker. Nothing was bouncing the Texans way and by the midway point of the fourth quarter quarterback Matt Schaub, who was one of the guys looking for a huge coming-out party, was no longer in the game.

If this was the Texans' big measuring stick, well, the Patriots took out the ruler and broke it over their heads.

CHICAGO