In a season which has had more than its share of “best teams in the NFL” or the “momentary Super Bowl favorites”, it’s weird to think that we’ve reached week 14, and only now is the name of the New England Patriots mentioned, after another sublime, MVP-like prime time performance from Tom Brady.
The Houston Texans were the current holders of the “best in the NFL” mantel. They were averaging more points than anyone in the NFL except for the New England Patriots; possibly the best defense in the NFL in terms of both points allowed and yards achieved against them. All that collapsed, as they became the first team since 2007 to be 10 games over. 500 and lose by at least 28 points. They didn’t just lose on Monday night in Gillette, they fell apart.
To make life hard for the Houston Texans, you have to get them out of their comfort zone. Force them to do what they don’t like. When Arian Foster gains only 46 yards on the ground (the Texans ended up with 100, averaging only 3.7 per carry), the Texans are already crippled. When J.J. Watt couldn’t get at least one batted pass, sack or tackle for loss for the first time this season, you know their defense was struggling.
The New England Patriots scored on their opening drive and intercepted Matt Schaub in the end zone on the next. It was 21-0 before the Texans really got anything going. Their defense couldn’t keep up with the pace, the misdirection and all the options presented in front of Tom Brady. It was never more evident than in the second of Aaron Hernandez’ touchdowns. After a 70 yard drive, helped by a 26 yard pass interference against the Texans, no one even lined up against Hernandez on the left, leaving an easy path for the tight end to score another touchdown.
Vince Wilfork, with 3 tackles and a sack, led the aggressive display that counted two sacks, six more quarterback hits and 7 tackles for a loss. The Patriots have been criticized all season for their secondary problems, but when you look at their 10-3 record and the way they manhandled a strong offensive line such as the one the Texans boasted before the game, it’s clear that they have other way to counter for their problems on defense.
Tom Brady took the individual spotlight. He was protected very well, even against the blitz. He was sacked only once, allowing him to complete 21 for 35, 296 yards and four touchdown passes, his 18th such game in his NFL career. Brady enjoyed throwing against the blitz especially, throwing for 121 yards and three touchdowns against five or more pass rushers in the first half en route to a 21-0 lead. Brady has now thrown a league-leading 18 touchdowns without an interception against added pressure this season. The Texans lead the NFL in blitzing plays, and didn’t change the course, while Belichick was too prepared for them.
Another sign of how bad the Texans defense operated was Brady making a lot more big plays than usual: He was 2-3 for 100 yards and two touchdowns on passes traveling more than 30 yards downfield. It was the first time in the QBR era (since 2008) that he had two touchdowns in a game on such throws. Entering the game, he was 25% on passes longer than 30 yards, tied for 20th-best among qualified quarterbacks.
So now the Partriots, not with the best record in the NFL or the AFC, who take the favorites torch for the rest of the way. Maybe it was written before the game even began: Since 2010, the Patriots are 21-0 in games played in the 2nd half of the regular season. Since 2007, the Patriots are 20-1 in the final 4 games of the regular season.