FOXBOROUGH - It was a cinch, but not a clinch. So while there were plenty of smiles among Patriots players yesterday following their 40-7 pasting of the Texans, it was hardly over-the-top elation.
Linebacker Tedy Bruschi seemed to sum up the tenor of the locker room.
“We really haven’t even done anything yet,” he said. “We’re still in a race. We’re not in the playoffs, so what have we done up to this point? Nothing. That’s why I’m not getting excited, because I don’t see any [championship] hats or T-shirts in my locker. Until I do, then you’ll see me excited.”
The Patriots improved to 10-4 by crushing the overmatched Texans, but Bruschi’s hope to see championship garb in his locker wasn’t realized because the Jets (8-6) beat the Vikings yesterday to stay alive in the AFC East. The Patriots can clinch the division with a win in either of their last two games, at Jacksonville (Sunday) and at Tennessee (Dec. 31). A loss by the Jets, who visit Miami and host Oakland, also would clinch the division for New England.
Minus the clinch, the Patriots settled for the next-best thing: a thoroughly dominating performance in their regular-season home finale that restored confidence following a disappointing 21-0 loss to Miami last week.
Quarterback Tom Brady, who had challenged the team in the days leading up to yesterday’s kickoff, felt the Patriots had arrived at a fork in the NFL road after that loss to the Dolphins. Based on the team’s inconsistent play, Brady previously acknowledged he had no idea how the rest of the season would unfold. He feels better now.
“There are probably more smiles around here today than there have been in a while,” he said. “It was the antithesis of last week.”
Indeed, as Brady had been pulled from the loss in Miami with just less than five minutes remaining, because the Patriots’ hopes already were dashed. Yesterday, he was taken out with just less than nine minutes to play, but this time it was because the outcome was well in hand.
The domination of the Texans was sparked by the defense, which intercepted four passes, totaled four sacks, and consistently set the offense up in solid field position. The Patriots’ average drive start was the Houston 49-yard line.
Meanwhile, two areas that had dogged the team in recent weeks - turnovers and penalties - were cleaned up considerably. After turning the ball over 11 times over the last three weeks, the Patriots didn’t have any turnovers yesterday. And after being flagged for 19 penalties in its last two games, the team had just two assessed penalties against the Texans.
And not to be overlooked was the role of special teams, which sparked the rout by stopping the Texans on a fake punt in the first quarter, then countered the Texans’ only score with an Ellis Hobbs 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown early in the third quarter.
“It was a real good, solid team victory for us,” said coach Bill Belichick. “We got some turnovers and were able to capitalize and make a couple of plays offensively. Special teams, I thought they had a real good day, and that was an important part of the game.”
Things began to turn early in the first quarter when the Patriots stopped a Texans fake punt at the Houston 42, with rookie Corey Mays and Larry Izzo credited with the tackle. Seven plays later, running back Kevin Faulk darted in for an 11-yard touchdown, giving the Patriots a 7-0 lead with 8:06 left in the opening frame.
On the Texans’ first play on their ensuing possession, defensive lineman Richard Seymour tipped a pass, then intercepted it, setting up Stephen Gostkowski’s 36-yard field goal.
On the next drive, the Patriots’ defense rose up once again, with Bruschi tipping a David Carr pass, and safety James Sanders hauling it in for an interception. Two plays later, Brady found Faulk on a screen pass to the left side of the field, and Faulk darted 43 yards for a touchdown. The score had Belichick high-fiving offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels on the sideline as the Patriots took a 17-0 lead with 3:31 still on the clock in the first quarter.
The screen was a big part of the Patriots’ offense, with Belichick estimating that New England called about 10 of them to counter the Texans’ pressure.
After taking a 27-0 lead at the half - on a Gostkowski 32-yard field goal and a 6-yard scoring pass from Brady to receiver Jabar Gaffney in the second quarter - all that was left was for the Patriots to respond to the Texans’ lone score. Hobbs took care of that with his third-quarter kickoff return, which made it 34-7 early in the period, before Gostkowski hit fourth-quarter field goals of 31 and 21 yards to account for the rest of the scoring.
From the Texans’ perspective, there was little to discuss.
“We were outcoached, outplayed, we got our butt kicked in every phase of the game,” said first-year coach Gary Kubiak, his team now 4-10. “No excuses, that’s on me. We definitely weren’t ready to do our job.”
Meanwhile, the Patriots have now recorded 10 wins in each of the last four seasons, and the 33-point spread was the team’s largest winning margin in Gillette Stadium history (2002-present).
“We have to build on this,” Bruschi said, “and not go backwards anymore.”