HOUSTON — Good enough.
That’s what the Patriots were Sunday to claim a 34-31 victory against the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium. That’s what they are when it comes to winning the AFC.
However, good enough might not be good enough to satisfy fans and pundits who are comparing this team to a standard they can’t reach — their own.
Like Tiger Woods or Kanye West, the 9-3 Patriots are their own toughest adversary. They’ve created an expectation-level of performance that leaves anything short of that looking shoddy.
But the 2013 Patriots don’t have to play up to the levels of prior Patriots teams. These Patriots just have to be good enough to contend for a Super Bowl title this year.
They are, especially in a league in which there are no dominant teams and parity is as ubiquitous to the games as a coach with a laminated play sheet pressed to his mouth.
Sure, they can coach it better, play it better, and certainly, get off to better starts. But the bar has been lowered, New England.
The Patriots offense has found traction, and rock ’em, sock ’em tight end Rob Gronkowski, whom the Texans couldn’t have covered Sunday with the Fenway Park tarp, is back to being a transformative force. He had six catches for 127 yards and a first-half touchdown in which he auditioned for Red Sox shortstop, picking a low liner from Tom Brady.
But the offense is probably not going to reach the stratospheric heights of previous Patriots attacks. The Patriots topped 500 points each season from 2010 to 2012. They have 322 points this season through 12 games. They would need to average 44.5 points per game to reach 500.
Injuries have depleted the improved defense that carried the team while the offense was in gestation to the point it looks awfully familiar. I don’t mean that in a good way. We’re back to the bend-but-don’t-break approach with a unit as pliable as a pipe cleaner.
Boston drivers wish there were highway lanes as wide as some of the running lanes the Patriots are allowing. The Texans rushed for 121 yards and four touchdowns Sunday and averaged 4.3 yards per carry.
In back-to-back weeks, the Patriots have beaten the presumed best team in the AFC (the Denver Broncos) and the team with the worst record in the AFC (the 2-10 Texans) by identical scores (34-31) with similar second-half surges. That’s indicative of the Patriots and the state of the NFL.
There was no sign of those silly varsity letterman jackets Sunday, but Houston, which suffered its 10th straight defeat, did bring its A game and built a 17-7 halftime lead.
The Texans entered the game averaging just 18.1 points per game.
Perhaps, the tryptophan from a Thanksgiving Day feast was still in the Patriots’ system, or they had a Peyton Manning hangover, but they allowed the Texans to penetrate their territory on five first-half drives. The sixth Houston drive was a kneel-down.
The Texans, who lost to the Patriots last season by scores of 42-14 and 41-28 (a playoff game), were not vanquished until Stephen Gostkowski hit his second 53-yard field goal of the fourth quarter to provide the winning margin with 3:12 to go.
“I don’t think we played the way we need to play in any area of the team,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “There is plenty of room for improvement.”
Just when you thought the e-mails might be pouring in to noted Texans tormentor Dan Shaughnessy’s inbox, the Patriots got in gear in the second half, just like they did against the Broncos.
The Patriots scored on their first five possessions of the second half, and they were merely trying to burn clock on the sixth, after the defense stopped Houston on fourth and 12.
New England put up 307 of its 453 yards of offense after halftime.
Brady, who finished 29 of 41 for 371 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, delivered a quarterback dissertation in dissection. He was 18 of 23 for 263 yards and a score after halftime.
His completion percentage climbed above 60 percent (60.7) for the season.
“Brady is obviously one of the greatest of all time,” said Texans linebacker Darryl Sharpton. “He showed the reason why today. He is able to dissect defenses very well.”
Brady gave the Patriots their first lead, 21-17, with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Shane Vereen with 8:06 left in the third quarter.
It was a see-saw affair from there. Houston took its final lead, 31-28, with 11:35 left. Texans rookie QB Case Keenum, who acquitted himself well but still hasn’t won a game, hit DeAndre Hopkins with a 66-yard pass. Ben Tate (22 rushes for 102 yards) had his third rushing TD of the game, a 10-yarder, two plays later.
But Gostkowski hit his first 53-yard field goal to tie the proceedings with 7:16 to go.
The Texans then folded like a lawn chair, including some mind-boggling time-(mis)management by coach Gary Kubiak.
Brady was asked if the Patriots’ victories were masking the team’s deficiencies.
“There is going to be one team that’s happy at the end of the year. That’s just the way it is,” Brady said. “I don’t know. We’re trying to do our best, go out there and execute the game plan, and certainly, it’s not always perfect. It ended up being a dogfight for us.
“But we found a way to pull it out, and I think that’s the most important thing. No matter what the situation is — if you’re ahead late, if you’re behind late, you have to figure out a way to win in the end.”
The Patriots did that.
Once again the Patriots were good enough to win. That’s going to have to be good enough for us this year.