The Patriots are Google. The Texans are a Silicon Valley start-up. The Patriots are NFL upper crust. The Texans are pigskin parvenus. The Patriots are a navy blue suit, a reliable, timeless staple. The Texans are brightly colored dress socks, a questionable, en vogue pick of the moment.
Monday night’s prime-time clash between the Patriots and the 11-1 Texans is missing the prologue of past showdown games against teams like the Jets, Colts, and Ravens. The history between these two teams basically consists of Wes Welker tearing up his knee on the Texans’ tattered home turf in the 2009 season finale, and the Patriots’ winning Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers in Houston’s stadium, a game better known for the “wardrobe malfunction” at halftime.
The Texans don’t have much history, period. They made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last season. Their 11 wins are already a franchise record.
It feels like Tom Brady has children older than the Texans, who played their first NFL game way back in 2002. None of Brady’s brood predate the Houston franchise, but TB12 has been in the league two years longer than the Texans have been in existence. (Houston was sans football for five seasons after the Oilers left for Tennessee.)
When Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson dubbed this the “biggest game in the history of this franchise” he wasn’t using hyperbole. The Patriots are looking for affirmation of their defensive improvement and ability to do more than bench press the dead weight of the AFC East. The Texans are playing for the validation of their season and their franchise.
“We’ve been doing a lot of firsts around here, and that’s been great,” said Texans linebacker Bradie James. “We’ve been taking them one game at a time, and when you win games, the next one is always bigger.
“But this is also like a respect deal for us because we know that we are still flying under the radar.”
As much as fans and media have pointed to this game and next Sunday’s game with the San Francisco 49ers as the crucible of the Patriots season, it is Houston that has more to prove at Gillette Stadium.
Everyone knows who the Patriots are and have been with the canonized coupling of Brady and Bill Belichick. The Patriots (9-3) can lose this game and not lose their street cred as legitimate AFC title contenders. It just means they’re not going to be the AFC’s top overall seed.
Betting against them in January would still be unwise.
If the Texans lose, a lot of folks are going to wonder whether they can really hang in football high society. It won’t matter that they have the league’s No. 2 scoring offense, behind only the Patriots’ point-a-palooza attack, and the type of difference-making defense the Patriots have lacked since Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison were preventing points, not making them as studio analysts.
Foxborough is a proving ground or a burial ground for the Texans.
On paper, this should be a great matchup.
The Patriots (plus-170) and Texans (plus-130) rank 1 and 2 in scoring differential. They’re also 1 and 2 in turnover differential; the Patriots lead at plus-24 and the Texans are at plus-14. With Brady at the controls, the Patriots are the best in the league on third down (52.6 percent), while Houston’s defense, led by J.J. Watt, boasts the best third-down defense in the league (28.4 percent allowed).
The Texans are a team that can beat you playing several styles. They’ll run the ball with Arian Foster, who enjoyed his breakout game against the Patriots in a Houston comeback win at the end of the 2009 season. They can throw it to Johnson, who is built like an NBA 2-guard, or harass you with their attacking 3-4 defense.
That defense is powered by Watt, who provides more tips than a self-help book. Watt drew copious praise from Belichick this past week. He might be a defensive line version of Ed Reed, another Belichick favorite.
Watt’s combination of 16½ sacks and 15 passes batted down had never been accomplished in NFL history until this season. Belichick should have called pal Doc Rivers and asked if he could borrow Kevin Garnett for a few days to simulate Watt in practice.
Both teams come in as winners of six straight. But this one has the feel of one of those Patriots romps when Route 1 is awash in the ruddy glow of taillights by the end of the third quarter.
The Patriots, who have won 20 straight games in the back half of the NFL slate, dating to the 2010 season, are enjoying their usual late-season surge. Last week’s win in Miami might not have been aesthetically pleasing, but it provided much more insight than the recent scoring binges against the Colts and Jets.
The Patriots have turned the blowout into an art form. But last week’s win over Miami was a throwback victory, built on situational football, defense, and a ruthless rushing attack, a sign that this team might possess some of the same win-by-any-means-necessary mien as its Lombardi Trophy-lifting forerunners.
“I think the mark of our teams over the years has been we’ve improved as the season has gone along,” said Brady. “December is the last month to really improve.
“That’s what’s important this time of the year — to not make the same mistakes we were making in September and to play our best football. This will be a great week to see if we can accomplish that.”
Accomplishments, Brady and the Patriots have plenty of those.
The big story in Houston Friday was that the entire Texans team got high school-style letterman jackets. They plan to wear them for their trip to Foxborough. The joy of winning is new for the Texans.
But for the Patriots, statement games like these are old hat.