OTAs have started, Gronk looks like he's going to pull through, it's a beautiful morning, and summer is just around the corner - life is good. And so it's time to continue my countdown of the Top 20 Most Memorable Patriots Moments of 2012. We're well into the Top 10 now, and here is the list so far:
#20. The Patriots surprise everyone, sign
#19. The move up in the draft, select and in the first round.
#18. comes up with a huge 3rd down sack on , holding the to a field goal.
#17. picks off in the end zone to seal the game vs. the .
#16. A diving catch in the end zone shows off athleticism as well as his pearly whites.
#15. ’ forced fumble of to seal the game against the
#14. New England engineers an 7-plus minute drive to close out the Dolphins and clinch the AFC East.
#13. Baltimore Beats New England 31-30 in a disastrous weekend of replacement reffing.
#12. Julian Edelman's electric punt return TD against the .
#11. New England's 28 point comeback against the .
#10. forces a fumble to seal the game against the in overtime.
#9. Dual 100 yard days for Ridley and Bolden, dual 100 yard days for Welker and Gronk against the Buffalo Bills.
Moving on now to number 8:
8. Tom Brady's playaction pass to Brandon Lloyd against the Texans, the rout is on.
There was a lot of hype coming into the Week 14 Monday Night matchup between the New England Patriots and the Houston Texans; both teams were riding six game winning streaks, both sat atop their respective divisions, and both were considered frontrunners to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Houston, sitting at 11-1, was widely considered the better team, as they had shown both the ability to score a lot of points and the resiliency to pull out a few tough overtime victories. The 9-3 Patriots, coming off two huge AFC East victories against the Jets and Dolphins, were about to get their biggest test of the season. J.J. Watt was playing like a man possessed, Arian Foster was breaking ankles left and right, and the Houston defense was everything that the Patriots defense used to be and more. Everyone seemed primed for an AFC changing of the guard - especially the Texans, who confidently marched into Foxboro wearing matching Varsity jackets with the air of a team that wasn't going to let the Patriots stand in the way of their Season of Destiny. The Texans had officially bought into their own hype and weren't about to lose to the washed-up Pats.
But in the words of Herm Edwards, that's why you play the game.
This game was pretty much over from the opening whistle. Houston, on their first drive, was only able to gain 14 yards on 4 plays before being forced to punt. The Patriots then proceeded to effortlessly march 60 yards in just over three minutes, capped off by a 7 yard touchdown catch by Aaron Hernandez. That touchdown drive saw the Patriots with only one third down, and while a goal line fumble by Stevan Ridley almost spelled disaster, Hernandez was able to recover and was rewarded for his efforts by adding another TD to his stat line. New England jumped to a quick 7-0 lead and the game had the feel of an absolute offensive shootout.
On the ensuing Houston possession, Matt Schaub settled down and began methodically picking the Patriots defense apart with short passes to Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels. The dink and dunk offense lulled New England into complacency, which allowed Shaub to then go deep to Lestar Jean for a huge 25 yard play that brought Houston down to the Patriots 23 yard line. Fortunately, that's where the Texans offensive firepower stopped, as Schaub was intercepted in the end zone by Devin McCourty a mere two plays later to give the Patriots the ball back with the chance to go up by two scores.
Starting from their own 18, a few passes to Lloyd, Woodhead. and Hernandez quickly brought New England out of their own end zone and into Texans territory. Everything seemed to be clicking on offense.
Then, on 1st and 10 from the Houston 37, the Patriots came out in a single back, 3 TE set that saw Michael Hoomanawanui alone on Brady's weak side and Daniel Fells and Aaron Hernandez together on the strong side. Houston, anticipating the run, moved their linebackers closer to the line and cheated free safety Glover Quin into the box. As soon as Tommy B snapped the ball, the entire line shifted right, setting up blocks for an off-tackle stretch run. Reacting to the line's movement, all three linebackers shot into the gaps and Quinn completely committed to the rush. Brady, one of the better playaction quarterbacks in the league, hard-sold the handoff before bringing it back into his chest and lining up to pass. Hoomanawanui, rushing right to further sell the stretch run, had allowed Connor Barwin to run free at the quarterback, but Ryan Wendell peeled off his block perfectly to circle back around and short-circuit Barwin's pass rush in order to give Tommy B the time he needed to throw. Lloyd, the only receiver on the field, ran a simple post pattern to the area of the field that Quinn had vacated when he bit on the fake. Brady hit Lloyd perfectly in stride for what was probably the easiest deep touchdown throw and catch since Tommy B and Randy Moss faked Anthony Smith out of his shorts in 2007. The Patriots went up 14-0 and didn't look back. They would go on to win the game 42-14, and one of those Houston scores didn't come until late in the 4th quarter after the Patriots had pulled all of their starters.
I have this play at number 8 on my list for three reasons. One, it was just a great play, one of those plays where everything goes exactly the way it's supposed to, the stars align, and New England comes away with a sweet touchdown. Two, it was the second big play of that series, if you include McCourty's interception, and it was the exact moment where you could see the entire Texans team deflate as they realized that they were in way over their heads. And three, it was the key play in what was an absolute statement game; the Texans were supposed to come into Foxboro, Varsity jackets and all, and prove to the NFL world that there was a new powerhouse in the AFC. Instead, they got their asses handed to them on national television and were forced to slink home to lick their wounds and try to figure out what the hell just happened to their team. You could make the case that getting blown out by the Patriots was a key factor in their late-season collapse and allowed New England to sneak in and steal the 2 seed from them during Week 17.
If McCourty hadn't made that pick and the Texans had scored, it might have been a different game. Or if the Patriots hadn't come right off that interception and made the Houston defense look foolish with that throw, it might also have been a different game. But the Patriots were able to get it done, re-assert their dominance, and gain some real momentum heading into the home stretch of the 2012 season. That play, as much as any other last season, made me realize that the Patriots can compete with any team in the NFL, and as long as Tommy B is under center, New England will always be Super Bowl contenders.
You can relive the play here.