FOXBOROUGH — If the Patriots had any interest in earning the AFC’s No. 1 seed for the playoffs, beating the Texans Monday night was mandatory.
Houston came in with a two-game lead over New England, so a victory would have produced a three-game cushion with three games to play, plus Houston would have owned the head-to-head tiebreaker. A loss would have left the Patriots fighting for a first-round bye, but without the guarantee of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Everything — home field, the No. 1 playoff seed — is still in play for the Patriots after Monday’s 42-14 prime-time beatdown of the Texans, who came in with a sporty 11-1 record, but also whispers and wonderings if they were ready for this kind of stage against this kind of team.
They weren’t, at least not on this night. And even though the standings still show Houston at 11-2, and every playoff bracket has the Texans currently in the top slot and the 10-3 Patriots at No. 2, there would be few disagreements if you asked around the league. With a seven-game winning streak, no team — save for maybe Denver, winners of eight straight — is playing better football right now than the Patriots.
Monday was the night to make a statement. In the days leading up to the game, the Texans talked excitedly about doing it. When the lights came on, only one team did.
“I finally feel like we put together four quarters of football,” Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said. “Obviously, we came into this game with a chip on our shoulders, everyone talking about the Houston Texans.
“We always talk about ignoring the noise, but you hear it. You hear it walking down the street. It was a little bit of a motivational factor for me, at least. I’m sure the rest of the guys felt the same way.”
By beating Houston, the Patriots pulled within a game of the Texans in the overall AFC race, and are tied for second with the Broncos, one game ahead of Baltimore and Indianapolis. By virtue of their 31-21 win over Denver Oct. 7, the Patriots would get the No. 2 seed if they finished in a two-team tie with the Broncos. Completing the regular season first or second means a first-round playoff bye, followed by a home game. Considering the Patriots’ current run – 13 straight wins in December – it’s a tangible goal, since they control their postseason fate.
It means there’s plenty to play for over the final three weeks of the season, starting with another prime-time home game, Sunday’s visit by the San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1). It’ll be the second of back-to-back home games against teams that are (Houston) and should be (San Francisco) bound for the playoffs.
New England aced the first litmus test. Perhaps a stronger one awaits?
“Houston is a good football team. We needed a good performance to win last night. San Francisco is a good football team. We’ll need a good performance to beat them, too,” coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday during a media conference call. “I don’t think we put a whole lot of relevance or spend any time talking about that type of thing. We talk more about what we need to do to win each week, and each week there are new and different challenges.
“We met them last week, but I don’t think that really has anything to do with this game. We need to move on and see if we can figure out some way to beat San Francisco.”
Six days after facing a stingy Houston defense that included size and athleticism — not to mention J.J. Watt — up front, the Patriots will encounter a San Francisco team that might be even better. The 49ers have allowed just 184 points through 13 games, the lowest in the league by far (Chicago is next, at 219), and are No. 2 in total defense.
All the Patriots did against the Texans was score the first three times they had the ball, on three Tom Brady touchdown passes. Very quickly, the rout was on.
“Well, it was a big game because they were 11-1, leading the AFC and we had to see where we’re at, see where we match up against the better teams in the league,” Brady said. “We lost to Baltimore, who’s winning their division. We beat Denver, who’s leading their division. And we beat the Texans, who are leading their division.
“It’s always good to win these games, certainly Monday night — we’ve played in a lot of big games here — but Monday night in December is an important one for us and we came out ready to go.”
Sunday night in December will be no less important, especially since it gives the Patriots another chance to measure how they stack up against a team capable of making a run at New Orleans, site of Super Bowl XLVII in February.
This could have been a Super Bowl rematch, but the 49ers lost at home in overtime of the NFC Championship game against the Giants last season, which denied them a chance to face the Patriots. They get that chance now, confident of the balanced team they’re bringing to Gillette Stadium, and convinced they’re good enough to leave town with a statement win.
The Houston Texans felt the same way two days ago.