FOXBOROUGH -- Yesterday what was important was not what the Patriots did but what they did not do.
They did not fumble the ball. They did not throw interceptions. They did not commit penalties. They did not come out flat. They did not, in other words, continue to be trapped in the malaise that seemed to engulf them following their hard-fought victory over the Chicago Bears three weeks ago.
Ever since that bone-crushing victory, the Patriots have been in a funk. They've been shrouded in a fog. Their theme song had become a blues number. They had not been themselves at all, a situation that resulted in a stumbling, last-minute victory over the Detroit Lions, followed by a 21-0 whitewashing at the hands of the Miami Dolphins that seemed to shock them into a clearer understanding that as much as their fans might talk about their résumé, their opponents couldn't care less about the rings on their fingers or the trophies on their mantels. If they wanted to have a chance to get more of either they had to do what used to be the simplest of things for them. They needed to shut up and play, which yesterday they did.
No speeches needed. No players-only meetings necessary. No locker room explosions or inspirational rallying cries. Just play the way they feel they're capable of. Smart, and tough, and aggressively.
That's why yesterday's 40-7 destruction of the lowly Houston Texans was important to them. Not because it proved much about who they are, but because of what it said they are not. They are not a team that has forgotten how to buckle on its chin straps, like a bloated and aging prize fighter. They are not a team unable to play error-free football when that is the focus.
That is what was most important about beating up the lowly Texans. As Houston quarterback David Carr said after being sacked four times and throwing four interceptions, "We thought we had a chance. Obviously we watched what Miami did last week. They are a beatable team. But we knew they were going to come back out and play with the intensity that they play with. They haven't won three Super Bowls the last [five] years for nothing."
What Carr was making clear was that when yesterday dawned the Patriots appeared vulnerable even to the lowly Texans, but by sunset everything had changed.
New England's offense, frankly, wasn't great. But it didn't need to be great in a game in which the Patriots' average drive started at the Texans' 49-yard line. The offense needed to be efficient, which it was.
The defense was not only efficient but also dominating, and the special teams were suffocating when covering kicks and explosive when returning them, punctuating the day with a 93-yard Ellis Hobbs kick return for a touchdown the play after the Texans finally had scored after a 70-yard drive to open the second half. Perhaps for a brief moment Houston thought it might get back into the game, but Hobbs and his blockers took care of that quite quickly. In about 12 seconds, actually.
"We haven't had many Victory Mondays [an extra day off after a win]," fullback Heath Evans said, after announcing today was one. "We got a lot of wins this year, but a lot of times they didn't feel like victories. This one did."
It did because it was, because they played the way they insist they still are capable of but hadn't done often enough the previous six weeks. During that time New England had gone 3-3 but struggled to hold off the Bears and the Lions among those victories. In the last three games, they committed 11 turnovers, which was a half a season's worth during their glory days. They were a team that needed a change of direction. Or maybe just a reminder of how those rings and trophies came about.
They talked about changing things all week before they went to Miami and then fumbled four times, losing three, in a dreadfully one-sided loss, so it didn't really matter what the Texans were yesterday. What mattered was what the Patriots were, and what they reminded the rest of the league is that, on their good days, at least, attention must be paid to them. It was a message to their opponents but also one they needed to hear themselves.
"It let us know if we play like that we can beat anybody any Sunday," wide receiver Reche Caldwell said. "If we stop the turnovers and the penalties we can be dominant. It was important to remind ourselves of that."
That may not mean anything to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Christmas Eve. They will be a desperate team fighting for its playoff life when the Patriots go to face them, spoiling for a fight after being beaten by the Titans in a game in which Tennessee had the ball for only 15 minutes and managed just 98 total yards. Same could even be true on New Year's Eve in Nashville, where those suddenly resurgent Titans (winners of six of their last eight) are making some late noise about being the wildest of wild-card contenders. But yesterday's win meant something to the Patriots, for it was a reaffirmation that when they focus hard enough, they still are who they think they are.
"We have something to build on," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "You get shut out, 21-0, there's not much to build on. Now we've had a game where all three units of our team performed well. We don't want to go backwards from there."
At midweek, an apparently irked Tom Brady publicly rebuked some of his teammates, while naming none of them. He claimed they needed to listen more to their coaches and practice as hard as they intended to play. Much will be made of that now, but nose tackle Mike Wright seemed to put into proper perspective what words mean at this juncture of the season.
"I didn't know about his message," said Wright, the replacement for the injured Vince Wilfork, after the win.
No, yesterday was not about inspirational talks or harsh lectures. It probably wasn't even about a tough Friday practice that reportedly lasted two hours. What it was about was a team of individuals deciding as one to do what they do best -- their jobs.
Each accountable to himself and to each other.
Do the simple things and the rest will follow. If you have the ball, hold on to it. If it's thrown to you, catch it. If you're in position to make a tackle, make it. Stay onside. Don't do things that are stupid. Play within yourself and within the structure outlined by Bill Belichick and his staff. In other words, play the way you've been saying you were going to the previous six weeks. Which they finally did.
"As a team we rallied," Brady said. "We fought back. It was nice to see us respond like that. That's what very good teams do [in the face of adversity]. I think we're a very good team. Coach put pressure on us all week. He's very tough on us after a loss. Our team responded to that. Now we're playing for a [division] championship next week. We'll see how we respond to that."
There is no way of knowing for sure what that response will be the last two weeks or in the playoffs. But what yesterday's pounding of the Texans did was remind them what they are capable of when they play their best. How long they can do that remains to be seen, but yesterday, at least, they were who they think they are.
Ron Borges can be reached at email@example.com.