FOXBORO, Mass. -- Okay, let's do what you're never supposed to do in the NFL, and get ahead of ourselves. It's allowed. Week 14 is over and it's practically mid-December.
The Houston Texans might still earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and maybe even compile the NFL's best record this season. And if so, good for them. But I think Monday night in Gillette Stadium proved that we shouldn't let the window dressing and fluff count for too much when it comes to Gary Kubiak's talented team.
The Texans came here intent on challenging the well-established conference supremacy of the New England Patriots and hopefully finding out a few things about themselves in the process. Could they stand up to the primetime crucible of what one of their star players called "the biggest game in franchise history,'' and were they ready in their franchise's development to stand shoulder to shoulder and with trade punches with the likes of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick -- the NFL's big-game gold standard for the past dozen years?
Any questions? I didn't think so.
New England's 42-14 domination of Houston left the Texans still in possession of the AFC's top seed with just three weeks left in the regular season, but it also left us all with the distinctive belief the Patriots remain the team most likely to be playing in the Superdome on the first Sunday of February. And by us, I'm pretty sure you can include even the Houston locker room in that perception.
The Texans exited this game 11-2, but does it feel like they're ahead of the 10-3 Patriots in any way other than mathmatically? New England enhanced its sense of self with Monday night's blowout. Houston came out diminished, a team that looked and felt slapped down by a more experienced and accomplished opponent at the very moment it thought itself ready to burnish its own reputation and win a "statement game.''
That's the trouble with labeling anything a statement game. Sometimes the effort falls woefully short, and you end up making the wrong kind of statement. Loudly. With echoes and unintended reverberations.
"We knew how important the game was to us,'' said Texans receiver Andre Johnson, the team leader who called this trip to New England the biggest 60 minutes in the franchise's 11-season existence. "They just gave us a good ass-whupping. That's pretty much it.''
That was indeed pretty much it. The Texans looked like a still-young team that had big-stage fright, and the Patriots looked like the machine-like unit that isn't ready to give up its place in the NFL pecking order. New England led this game 21-0 before the Texans really knew where they were and who they were playing against, and by then it was too late to recover.
The Patriots made every play that mattered when the game was still in doubt, getting a 31-yard Wes Welker punt return to jump start things, Aaron Hernandez recovering a Stevan Ridley fumble a play before Tom Brady hit his tight end on a 7-yard touchdown pass to open the scoring, and safety Devin McCourty picking off Houston quarterback Matt Schaub in the end zone when the Texans threatened on their second drive.
Three possessions into this showdown, New England was up three touchdowns and smelling fresh blood in the water. The Texans steadied themselves defensively in the second quarter, forcing three consecutive three-and-outs by the Patriots, but by then any chance Houston had of pulling the upset it craved was gone, gone, gone.
"We got our tails kicked,'' the Texans' Kubiak said in his opening postgame remarks, faithfully sticking to Houston's talking points. "We could have really done something about it early, when we needed to play better offensively and make some plays. But give them credit. They got after us all night long. The bottom line is we got beat, and we got beat pretty darn good. That's the type of team they are. They make you look really bad. That's why they're at where they're at.''
This game showed us that the Texans might be atop the AFC's playoff standings, but they're not kings of the hill in the conference just yet. Not that they give any trophies out for such a distinction in December.
The Patriots, after all, don't need the ego boost of earning the AFC's No. 1 seed. New England has only held the top spot in the postseason in three of their five Super Bowl seasons since its glory era began in 2001. In fact, a No. 1 has made the Super Bowl in only three of the past eight seasons in the AFC, and just half the time (four out of eight) in the NFC over the same span. So let the Texans and Falcons (11-2) hang on to their playoff pole positions -- if they can. Even if they wrap up that honor, they'll both be perhaps the least scary No. 1 seeds in quite some time.
What the Patriots accomplished Monday night was a message sent. The AFC has some Super Bowl worthy challengers, Houston, Denver and maybe even Baltimore among them. But New England is the defending AFC champion for a host of reasons, and nobody can match playoff pedigrees with the Patriots, who will be vying for their sixth Super trip in the 11 full seasons the historic Brady-Belichick tandem has been together.
Both Houston and New England entered play with identical six-game winning streaks, but by the time the game was over, the comparison ended there. It was a mile-wide gap between the Texans and Patriots on this night.
"We've got to start off faster, and start quicker,'' Texans offensive left tackle Duane Brown said. "We came out and the intensity was there, the energy was there, but we just left plays on the field. You can't give one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game a lot of time on the clock and a lot of opportunities. We've been down 21 points before, but when you get down 21-0 against a bunch like this, it's tough. It's tough to dig yourself out of the hole.''
By early in the fourth quarter, with the Patriots scoring again to grab a 35-7 lead, the Texans even looked like they had no more appetite for trying to rally against a New England team that had it all going its way. Houston's first fourth-quarter possession saw backup running back Ben Tate carry on four consecutive plays, before a 4th-and-1 punt from the Texans 39. There was no hurry-up offense, and Houston kept huddling, taking its sweet time. It may not have represented a white flag of sorts, but it was a clear signal the Texans wanted this game over with as soon as possible -- which, you have to admit, is an unusual admission in a matchup that was billed by many as a franchise's measuring stick.
Maybe that was a right approach, given that Houston now faces a short week of work before Sunday's suddenly huge home game against Indianapolis (9-4). The Colts, who play the Texans twice in the season's last three weeks, are two games behind Houston and could win the division by winning out. Turning the page quickly is demanded in the NFL, but Monday night was supposed to be all about matching up with the Patriots, not starting to worry about the on-rushing Colts.
"How you respond to defeat and how you respond to not playing well says a lot about your team,'' Kubiak said. "We've got to lookin in the mirror at what we did tonight, and try to fix it. At the same time, they've got to get their chin up and go get ready to play again. That's part of the business.''
It is, but it's also important to take care of business when you get the chance. And the Texans badly botched that opportunity in New England. If these two teams meet again in another six weeks in the AFC title game, no matter where it is, the specter of this rout will loom over that rematch. And the Patriots will be favored to repeat a version of what just transpired Monday night.
"We'll run into them again, and we'll see how we respond,'' Johnson said, staying confident.
If you're a Texans fan, maybe the best you can hope for is Houston using the 2010 Jets as their model. That season, playoff-bound New York got humiliated by New England 45-3 on a Week 13 Monday night in December at Gillette Stadium. But six weeks later, when the rematch took place in Foxboro, the resilient Jets had closed the gap and then some, upsetting the 14-2, No. 1 seeded Patriots 28-21 in the divisional round.
"If we handle our business, they have to come to Houston, and they know that, and we know that,'' Texans running back Arian Foster said.
They do, but I don't think the Patriots really care. Changes come every year in New England, but the Patriots are perennially ready to play on the big stage. So a trip to Houston in January isn't going to throw a little trepidation into Bill Belichick's team. At least not to the same degree a return trip to Gillette Stadium would the just out-classed Texans.
In Houston, there's still work to be done if that No. 1 is to mean what the Texans want it to mean come playoff time.