FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Their critics punched holes in 11-1, citing a soft schedule, trouble against top quarterbacks and a quarterback of their own who still has not really been in high-stakes games.
The amplitude of all of that will skyrocket now, after the Houston Texas turned in an unqualified 42-14 dud at Gillette Stadium against the New England Patriots. It was so bad the Texans basically waved a white flag early in the fourth quarter, huddling on offense rather than hustling to maximize their time, and running the ball on four consecutive plays.
The Texans still have a one-game lead on the Patriots in the AFC standings, and bigger edges on the other division leaders, Denver and Baltimore, whom they’ve beaten.
This clunker hardly undoes a great season that has three games plus playoffs remaining. But it does tell us three things about the near future for the Texans:
They don’t have sole control over the division anymore. Win next week and they own the AFC South. But the Colts can now say they control their own fate, too. If Indianapolis wins its final three, including two against the Texans, they’ll wrest the division crown away
They Texans really need home-field advantage if they are going to get to the Super Bowl. Sure, anything can happen. But a return trip here would make for a very difficult path to New Orleans.
The Texans’ two losses have come against Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. They gave up a lot to Peyton Manning in a victory, too. This team’s odds of beating two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in the playoffs, even if both games are at Reliant Stadium, are low. The Texans would benefit greatly from an upset dished out by someone else in the wild-card round or by New England and Denver playing each other in a divisional-round game.
A sober locker room was filled with guys who weren’t going to say their season has fallen apart.
But several veterans said this was akin to a school field trip.
“I think they showed us what it takes to be a champion,” inside linebacker Bradie James said.
Defensive lineman Antonio Smith agreed.
“I sensed it from the coin toss. It was business, straight up, to them,” he said.
“You can see just how serious they were. They’ve been here before. I’m a movie buff, you know. It reminded me of that movie ‘Troy’ when Achilles told Hector, ‘Now you know what you’re dealing with.’ That’s what it was like. No love. ‘We’re coming in here to show y’all who the big dogs are.’”
Earlier in the week, the Texans got letterman jackets, and they wore them to town in a harmless show of unity. Early Tuesday morning, hometown reporters in the press box jokingly debated who could write that New England took the Texans to school. I’d imagine some of the Patriots were making the same crack in private. For those seeking fresher material there was this: The team’s equipment men struggled to get some stuff back to their truck because the cart they drove down a stadium tunnel had a flat tire.
The Texans pointed to early mistakes as a key to their downfall, though I’m not sure there was a formula for them to win against this team in this setting on this night.
They had them stopped again on a third-and-10 early in the second quarter, and safety Danieal Manning was called for pass interference on Welker as he impeded his path, bumping him without looking back.
New England took advantage of both mistakes and moved right along to touchdowns.
After the first one, the Texans were in great position to respond. They moved 59 yards to the Patriots’ 21-yard line. But safety Devin McCourty broke beautifully on Matt Schaub’s second-down pass for Kevin Walter in the middle of the end zone and took it away.
Houston didn’t put points on the board until 6 minutes, 12 seconds remained in the third quarter, and the Patriots already had 28 and complete control.
Down four touchdowns at the start of the fourth quarter, coach Gary Kubiak surrendered. His offense didn’t hurry, huddling at its regular pace. Schaub handed the ball off to third-string running back Ben Tate until it was time to punt.
Players stopped short of calling it a white flag, but receiver Andre Johnson and left tackle Duane Brown didn’t love it. They shouldn’t have. It sends a team a bad message to give up at that point. At least go down slinging it.
“I have no control over that,” Johnson said.
“I just line up and do my job,” Brown said.
Schaub pointed to the short week ahead and a crucial game against Indianapolis as a reason for letting up.
Brady, like Rodgers in a win and Manning in a loss before him, was the third MVP quarterback to shred the Texans this season. He hit 21 of 35 passes for 296 yards, four touchdowns and a 125.4 passer rating before stepping aside for Ryan Mallett.
“Obviously I didn’t do enough game-plan-wise against the guy,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “… It doesn’t feel like you have more wins than New England right now.”
The Patriots did well to keep the best players wearing the visitors’ uniforms in check. Johnson caught eight passes, but only for 11.9 yards a clip. Arian Foster managed only 85 total yards. J.J. Watt had four tackles and three quarterback hits but no sacks and no passes batted down.
His biggest play didn’t even benefit his team. Early in the fourth quarter, he tracked down Danny Woodhead and punched the ball loose after a 16-yard catch. But the ball shot forward into the end zone, where Brandon Lloyd corralled it for his second touchdown.
Watt looked furious as he made his way briskly to the bus, but he still managed to hit a hopeful chord.
“We still have everything we want in front of us,” he said.