The record will show, in many ways, that the New England Patriots took care of business on Saturday night in an AFC divisional playoff game against the Houston Texans. A whopping 16-point favorite, the Patriots covered that point spread in their 34–16 victory.
New England dominated statistically in just about every area: first downs, third-down conversions, total yards, passing yards and special teams’ touchdowns.
And yet, this was far from a perfect victory. A relentless Texans pass rush spooked Tom Brady into two interceptions (he threw two in 12 regular-season games) and he finished with just a 68.6 rating. The Patriots’ offensive line, a bright spot all season, allowed Brady to be sacked twice and hit at least another six times, while Patriots running backs averaged just 3.4 yards per carry.
To put it another way: Texans QB Brock Osweiler had the ball in his hands in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie the game. OK, he promptly threw his second of three interceptions and the Patriots scored two plays later to make it 31–16, but you get the point.
Basically, neither potential AFC Championship Game finalist, Pittsburgh or Kansas City, was watching in great awe at the prospect of having to face Brady in his home stadium next week. If anything, the confidence of both of those teams grew exponentially while watching the Patriots struggle against the punchless Texans.
Perhaps the Steelers and Chiefs were thinking, The Patriots aren’t so great. They were at home with a week off and barely beat a team that can’t score. We can absolutely beat them next week.
And if they were indeed thinking that, they’d be correct. The Patriots got a little fat playing the easiest schedule in the league and without TE Rob Gronkowski, they’re not super talented. If their execution level isn’t high, like it wasn’t against the Texans, the Patriots can be beaten.
But there’s a flip side to what happened on Saturday night. It was probably the greatest gift the players could have given coach Bill Belichick, who may or may not have been grinning about it all while walking off the field.
If the Patriots had pummeled the Texans, Belichick would have had a more difficult time pounding the best out of his players while preparing for the AFC Championship Game. Now, after that performance, Belichick has all the ammo he needs to make this a Hell Week for his players. And that, ultimately, might be heavenly for the the team's prospects.
“We have to play better, we have to coach better than we did tonight, or there won’t be much left in our season,” Belichick said after the game.
The players are going to have to take their medicine this week. And they know it.
“If we want to keep winning and move on, we can’t play like that,” receiver Julian Edelman said. “We’re going to have to have a really good week of preparation this upcoming week and learn from the stuff we didn’t do well.”
“We made a lot of mistakes,” said running back Dion Lewis, who had three touchdowns including a 98-yard kickoff return that made it 14-3, but he also fumbled a kickoff. “I’m glad we got the win, but in order to advance next week, we’ve got to play a lot better than we did today.”
“We know we can’t play like that moving forward with all the penalties and turnovers,” said running back James White.
“Whoever we play next week is going to be a great football team and we’re going to have to play better than we played tonight on offense,” said Brady.
Job #1 on the Fix-It list will be repairing the protection. The Texans had great success moving edge rushers Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus all over the formation before and after the snap.
“We hit him when we wanted to,” said Clowney. “We were getting to him. We were messing him up disguising, moving around.”
According to Texans coach Bill O’Brien, it was a combination of what the Texans have done all season: stemming (moving them in a coordinated direction) the line, and then penetrating the unveiled weaknesses with Clowney and Mercilus.
“We stemmed the front a lot, moved the front,” O’Brien said before boarding the team bus. “We don’t line up in one front and then when the ball’s snapped stay in the same front. We’ve been doing that all year. Then we change it up from week to week. So whatever we did last week, maybe we did something different this week. We moved Clowney around, Mercilus, and I think that’s tough to deal with. Our defense played their asses off.
“Those guys are good, we know they’re very well coached so you can’t be vanilla. They’ve got vanilla. You’ve got to figure out something else to do and do some different things. If you line up in the same front that you did last week, they’re going to block the crap out of you.”
The Chiefs and Steelers saw on Saturday night that the Patriots will be ripe for the taking against an offense that, unlike Houston’s, is actually able to score more than 16 points in a game where it has four possessions that start in New England territory.
But Belichick is going to have his say at making adjustments this week. And while the Chiefs and Steelers are going to duplicate some of the things the Texans did, each team’s skillset is unique.
“I think the one thing about blueprint and stuff like that is each team is going to have to do their own thing,” O’Brien said. “… What we did tonight, we’ve been doing it in different ways all year; we’re a very active front. So whatever the next team is, Pittsburgh or Kansas City, they’ve got to do what they do. That’s just how we do it.”
The Steelers and Chiefs will feel confident after this game that they'll be able to find success in doing what they do. But chances are, following this performance and a week of Belichick-ordered changes, the Patriots will be better prepared to handle whatever it is that's thrown at them next week.