Rapid Reaction: Patriots 42, Texans 14

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Rapid reaction from the New England Patriots’ 42-14 victory over the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium:

TexansPatriotsWhat it means: This was an authoritative statement by the Patriots, who look like the team to beat in the AFC. They improve to 10-3 and, with three games remaining, will earn a first-round playoff bye if they win out. Meanwhile, the Texans (11-2) remain atop the AFC and their final three games unfold this way -- versus Colts, versus Vikings, at Colts.

Defense growing on the job: Led by captain Vince Wilfork, who had a J.J. Watt-type of game with solid all-around play that included a batted-down pass at the line of scrimmage, the Patriots' defense turned in arguably its best performance of the season. The defense, which was once viewed as a weakness of the team, has turned a corner in recent weeks and has the Patriots primed to make a run deep into the postseason.

Strong start by offense sets the tone: The Patriots opened the game by scoring touchdowns on their first three possessions, surging out to a 21-0 lead and the Texans -- who didn’t look anything like the AFC’s top team -- could never recover. Clearly not the Texans’ best, as this never materialized into the classic some anticipated it would be.

Brady plays with fire, sparks MVP chant: When quarterback Tom Brady scrambled for a first down on a third-and-5 play to close out the third quarter, he sprung up off the turf and pumped his arms in celebration, urging the crowd to rise up. That drew a big reaction, with fans sparking the cheer “M-V-P! M-V-P!” as the quarter ended. A performance like this one naturally helps Brady’s candidacy.

Talib’s hip injury one to monitor; other cornerbacks banged up: Patriots starting left cornerback Aqib Talib injured his left hip late in the second quarter and did not return. He had walked off the field under his own power and later was seen riding the exercise bicycle on the sideline. He watched the second half from the bench, in uniform. In addition, starting right cornerback Alfonzo Dennard didn’t finish the game because of a hamstring injury. Also, cornerback Kyle Arrington limped off in the fourth quarter and didn't finish.

Lloyd answers is critics with big effort: Veteran receiver Brandon Lloyd was coming off a game in which he was targeted just once in 60 snaps played, and criticism of his play was growing. Lloyd handled that criticism like a professional (read story here), and then went out and played big. His 14-yard catch on a third-and-10 helped extend the Patriots’ second scoring drive, which culminated with Lloyd’s 37-yard long-bomb score. Lloyd later recovered a Danny Woodhead fumble, and finished with seven catches for 89 yards.

Stallworth’s successful return: Veteran receiver Donte’ Stallworth, who was signed on Tuesday after Julian Edelman was placed on injured reserve with a broken foot, had a memorable return with a 63-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the third quarter that made it 28-0 at the time. Stallworth, who totaled 20 snaps in the game, played in three-receiver sets.

What’s next: The Patriots will welcome the San Francisco 49ers to Gillette Stadium on Sunday in a prime-time matchup. The Texans return home after three straight road games to entertain the Colts.