In hindsight, it's hard to believe anyone had the Patriots losing, or even playing a close game against the AFC-leading Houston Texans on Monday Night Football.
These are the Pats, after all. The same Pats now riding a seven-game win streak to a 10-3 record. The same Pats who haven't lost in the second half of the season since 2009. The same Pats who haven't lost at home in December since 2002. The same Pats who have the best QB/coaching tandem in NFL history.
The way the Patriots go about their business at this time of year was on full display Monday night to the tune of a 42-14 beatdown of the previously 11-1 Texans, who looked underprepared, overwhelmed and totally out of sorts. While Houston players strutted around in letter jackets and spoke wistfully of this game being "the biggest in franchise history," the Pats, as they always do, kept to themselves, quietly prepared and subsequently came out and vaporized their opponent, taking all the suspense or possibility of a good, hard-fought game out of the equation very early.
The Texans, who will go nowhere fast if they play as passive, predictably and seemingly afraid as they did in this game come playoff time, started off by getting a nice run from Arian Foster called back thanks to an illegal formation penalty and they never recovered. Their QB, the previously excellent Matt Schaub, was confused, skittish and shaky from the get-go. Their running game, after a decent start, never got on track, and their defense, considered a strength coming in, was humiliated time and again by a Pats' offense that hardly showed them the same look twice, making it look as though they hadn't prepared in even the most rudimentary ways.
And behind it all was Bill Belichick and his staff, Tom Brady and his offense and, especially, Vince Wilfork and his defense. Everyone deserves high marks for this one starting with those three (and followed closely by the D as a whole, which played its best game of the season). Because right now, there are simply no better teams in the NFL than the Patriots and that's a fact which was on full display for a national TV audience.
So with that, let's get to this week's report card.
Outside of a second to third quarter stretch during which the Pats went three-and-out five times, Brady was spectacular, showing the kind of patience, savvy, fire, courage under pressure and just out and out coolness that Schaub can only dream about. He finished the game 21-of-35 for 296 yards and four TDs, good for a ho-hum 125.4 passer rating. He repeatedly burned the Texans' defense and it's insistence on using man coverage on the outside, and diagnosed and recognized almost every wrinkle they threw at him, usually to optimal effect. His two deep TD passes, the 37-yarder to Brandon Lloyd on a picture perfect play fake, and the 63-yarder to newly reacquired/now out for the season Donte' Stallworth (who went to last week's game against the Dolphins as a fan?!!?), a touch throw feathered right over Stallworth's outside shoulder, were both thrown as well as is humanly possible. And his two short ones, both to Aaron Hernandez, each were an example of both perfect recognition of the defense and making the proper adjustment at the line. Brady even ran for a key first down in the second half, screaming with excitement while emphatically making the first down signal as the Gillette Stadium crowd showered him with chants of M-V-P. This is all old hat for a guy like Brady, who probably is the MVP of the league once again and doesn't seem to ever slow down. There are other great QBs in this league, some of them really great. But none of them are as great as Brady, who showed once again on Monday night that he's the best of the best.
Running Backs: 3.5
Great start, so-so middle, super finish. That's pretty much how the night went for the Pats' backs. Stevan Ridley started off very strong, got bottled up after a couple of excellent runs, nearly lost his third fumble of the year, sat on the bench for a long stretch then came back looking mighty as the Pats salted the game away in the fourth quarter. Ridley scored his 10th TD of the season late in the game on a perfectly executed, 14-yard blast up the middle, and finished with a tidy 72 yards on 18 attempts. Shane Vereen served notice that he's capable of getting more reps with five yards per attempt on his eight rushes. And Danny Woodhead, saved by an extremely lucky bounce on a third quarter fumble at the end of a really pretty catch and run on a screen pass, remains an important weapon. That the Pats have such a dependable rushing attack, particularly at this time of the season, is a major strength going forward. And even when the results aren't quite as consistent as you'd like, it's still enough to give this offense plenty of balance.
Wide Receivers: 4.5
Wes Welker didn't have his best game but that was OK since Lloyd and Stallworth were around to pick him up. Lloyd still seemed to shy away from contact at times and again hit the deck after a catch instead of trying to run despite being nowhere near any defenders, but when you're consistently beating your man, hauling in long bombs for touchdowns and falling on perfectly placed fumbles in the end zone to add to your scoring totals, that's excusable. It was awesome to see the Pats take some shots down the field to Lloyd and have them work seeing as how his ability to stretch defenses out with his speed and precision route running are a couple of the reasons why he's even here. He even caught a couple of big throws over the middle for first downs. It was Lloyd's best game in weeks (seven catches, 89 yards, two TDs) and it couldn't have come at a better time. As for Stallworth, what is there to say? He was signed in the middle of last week then caught a 63-yard TD with one hand while fighting off a defender with the other and dodged a couple of tackles on the way to outrunning the Houston secondary to the end zone. The score was 21-0 at the time but that play came when the Pats' offense had began to stagnate and there was more than enough time left for the Texans to potentially mount a comeback attempt. No one could have written or drawn it up any better. Welcome back, Donte'. We're sorry that you're most recent tenure here only lasted for three quarters, but man, that was a hell of a way to come back.
Tight Ends: 5
It would be great to have Rob Gronkowski around to continue to simultaneously make us laugh and freak us out with his demented genius TD celebrations but Hernandez is a more than capable substitute. Whether he's stirring/churning something or just throwing craps and making it rain, it's a joy to see Hernandez get into the end zone. He did it twice on Monday night and each of them was so, so easy they were both like stealing. On the first, he lined up next to Brady in the backfield in a shotgun formation and ran a simple flat route, took the ball in and outran Houston's slow footed middle linebacker Bradie James for the score (and while we're here, how obtuse does a defensive coordinator have to be to allow a 31-year old MLB who missed the past couple of weeks with a hamstring injury to be singled up on a player like Hernandez? Way to go, Wade Phillips!). On the second, in another example of the Texans being totally unprepared for the game, Hernandez split out wide from the 4 and no one, repeat, no one wearing a Texans' uniform, bothered to cover him. He waved at Brady to get his attention, Brady saw Hernandez literally all alone on the outside, and the rest was history. It's been nice being reminded over the past couple of weeks just how good Hernandez is after he missed so much time with his ankle injury. The Pats are so loaded on offense, they didn't miss him too too much when he was out. But it sure is great to have him back and if the TDs (and celebrations) didn't remind you of that enough, imagine if he hadn't had the wherewithal to recover Ridley's first quarter fumble inside the 5 while surrounded by three Texans' defenders. Totally different game. Also, big ups to Michael Hoomanuwanui, who played 43 snaps as the second tight end and had an excellent game blocking. He helped spring Ridley for his TD and had probably his most productive, impressive game as a Patriot.
Offensive Line: 4
More than one Pats' O-lineman made note of Monday being "Matt Light Night" as a contributing factor to the entire unit's stellar performance in this game. Whether that's true (and while we're here, congrats to the great Light, who deserves all the accolades thrust upon him in this his first year of retirement) or not, these guys were terrific, almost entirely shutting down Houston's Defensive Player of the Year candidate J.J. Watt (or, as Someone Who Knows Things referred to him from Foxborough in the fourth quarter, J.J. Squatt). Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly returned and while Connolly spent the majority of his evening working against Watt, it was a full team effort. There were multiple double teams and even though Watt did manage to knock Brady down three times, just one of them came when Connolly had him one-on-one. The Texans, who came in with one of the more heralded pass rushes in the league, sacked Brady just once and it came on a disguised outside blitz by linebacker Whitney Mercilus when he caught Sebastian Vollmer flat-footed and too upright. That was mostly it. Houston's defense was ranked second against the run coming in but allowed 130 yards at four yards a pop. Credit the O-line for that as well. One week after having such a tough time with another very good defensive line in Miami, this group raised its game against an even better D-line and won the match up convincingly.
Defensive Line: 5
It's difficult to keep up with every NFL team on a week to week basis. But if anyone has a player on defense who is playing better than Vince Wilfork right now, please speak up. Wilfork has been tremendous all year but the run he's on currently, beginning with the Colts game before Thanksgiving, is award worthy. He plays all over the line and is able to disrupt whatever the opposing offensive line is trying to accomplish from any spot. He was in the Texans' backfield on multiple occasions in the first quarter causing or making negative plays. He had a sack on which he seemed to use a Houston offensive lineman to club Schaub. He knocked down a pass which gave him one more than Watt, the league leader in that category, had all night. He forced a Schaub fumble. He threw Texans' left tackle Duane Brown, considered one of the best at his position in the league, aside as if Brown was Danny Woodhead. In other words, as he has time after time this season, he owned the line of scrimmage. There was a legit DPOY contender playing in this game and it wasn't Watt. It was Wilfork, absolutely the unquestioned leader of this still improving defense. It certainly helped that dunderheaded Houston coach Gary Kubiak astonishingly called running play after running play right at Wilfork regardless of down and distance or the score, but the big guy responded in a big way. There were good performances down the line from this group, with Trevor Scott and Rob Ninkovich continuing their strong play, Brandon Deaderick making a few tackles against the run and Chandler Jones returning from injury to also top Watt in passes batted down as well as look like his usual quick, powerful self. But no one was better than Big Vince, who may look like a walking minivan but plays like a speeding Mack truck.
In addition to Wilfork, the other standout on D over the past month is Jerod Mayo, who recovered from a slow start to play another sterling game. Mayo was in attack mode far more than he usually is and he responded with plenty of big hits, important tackles and solid coverage downfield. Again, the Pats were aided by the lousy play calling/coaching on the part of the Texans, who didn't seem to know that the Pats are at their weakest when their linebackers have to cover backs and tight ends (Owen Daniels, a borderline top echelon TE for the Texans, had just three passes thrown his way all night). Mayo, who just missed a couple of sacks on two more perfectly timed delayed blitzes up the middle, capped his night, and the game, with a dramatic, bone crushing stick on backup running back Ben Tate, who was leveled by Mayo almost the minute he took the hand off on a designed run up the middle. Given all of his responsibilities on this defense and the amount of cache he carries with the team, it's always a big plus to see Mayo play as well as he's been playing. He deserves all the credit in the world for the run he's on. Dont'a Hightower had a very nice game as well, making his presence felt in the Houston backfield on multiple occasions and looking more aggressive and sure of himself than he has perhaps all season. Those two were so good, they made up for a very quiet night from Brandon Spikes, who was seen limping in the first half, which may have contributed to his having somewhat of a down game.
Defensive Backs: 4.5
Devin McCourty is a terrific safety. We may have all known this before he was permanently moved there after the trade for Aqib Talib. But if we didn't, we sure do now. McCourty's first quarter interception of Schaub at the goal line changed the game and set the tone for the pass defense. On the play, Schaub, who ignored a check down to a wide open Arian Foster, tried to force the ball in to receiver Kevin Walter despite pretty good coverage by Kyle Arrington. McCourty read Schaub, played slightly off as if to dare him to make the pass, took a perfect angle to the ball and swooped underneath to pick it and keep the Texans off the scoreboard. To say McCourty's move to safety along with Talib's acquisition has saved the Pats' defense would be a massive understatement. Not only do the numbers back it up (97.3 opponent passer rating before the move, 72.4 opponent passer rating after), so do the results. This D has allowed 24 points to the Colts (seven of which came after the Pats were up 30), 19 to the Jets (all of which were scored after the Pats were up 35), 16 to the Dolphins and now 14 to the Texans. Talib was asked to shadow Andre Johnson, a huge show of confidence by Belichick in both him and the defense as a whole. He did an excellent job doing so in the first half, finishing his night with a hip injury at the end of the first half on a spectacular, diving pass break up that he nearly resulted in a pick (note: apparently Talib, who didn't play in the second half, will be fine). Alfonzo Dennard had another very nice game, shadowing Johnson in Talib's place and making a great tackle to force a punt on a crossing route by Johnson in the third quarter when it was still sort of a game. And then there's Kyle Arrington, who has been fantastic as the third corner, playing the slot quite well and making a couple of huge break ups, including one on a key fourth down play in the second quarter. It's amazing to even think it considering all of the major issues the Pats have had with their secondary and their pass defense as a whole for the past few seasons. But this team has a legit, ball-hawking, play-making secondary now and it shouldn't be taken lightly. Stop the presses.
Special Teams/Intangibles/Coaching: 5
Not an overtly impressive night for the special teams but solid nonetheless. Welker filled in for Julian Edelman returning punts and ran one back for 30 yards. Stephen Gostkowski boomed all of his kickoffs and didn't show any signs of confidence issues in doing so. Our man Zoltan Mesko had one semi-shanky punt but was otherwise very good. And Arrington made a couple of very nice plays in coverage.
As far as the coaching is concerned, this one was a complete mismatch. It's been said in this space before that when Belichick and staff are going up against lesser competition, (of which there's a ton), it makes them look that much better and Monday night was no exception. Gary Kubiak, the Texans' head coach, was so overmatched in this one, it was laughable. The inability for Houston to adjust to anything the Pats were doing all night on both sides of the ball was a rather scathing indictment of Kubiak's coaching prowess. To continue to call for inside runs in long yardage situations when down by three or more scores is just the tip of the iceberg. Again, the Pats have had major problems covering backs and tight ends all year. Daniels and Foster combined for six catches. Some of that is on Schaub, to be sure. But Kubiak has to know those are match ups to potentially exploit if he's paying attention. The fact that when the fourth quarter started and the Pats were up by 21 points, the Texans were huddling up and still running the ball speaks volumes.
Meanwhile, Belichick continues to look like the best in the business. The Pats showed the Texans one look after another on both offense and defense that Houston looked as though they'd never seen before and while Kubiak and his staff bear some responsibility for that, Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia and their underlings get A's across the board for outcoaching and outscheming them.
Is there anyone really in Belichick's class right now? Obviously Tom Coughlin is. Jim Harbaugh, who the Pats will see on Sunday night when the 49ers come to town, has the makings, but hasn't accomplished enough yet. Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin is a very good coach, but he's no BB. The company up at the top of coach mountain is sparse and Belichick continues to separate himself from everyone else pretty much on a weekly basis.
The Texans came to Foxborough with the best record in the league. They still have it, but they were completely outplayed, outcoached and, perhaps most tellingly, outclassed in dropping their second game of the year. The Patriots are as good as any team in the NFL right now, maybe even better. They are clicking on offense and defense at the most important point in the regular season. Sunday night when the Niners, among the class of the NFC, come to town, we'll get another chance to see just how good they are.
It will be tough for them to top their performance from Monday night. But after what they've done and how far they've come during this seven-game winning streak, it wouldn't be a surprise.