FOXBOROUGH — The Waltz of the Tomato Cans was everything we expected.
The Patriots defeated the Houston Texans, 41-28, Sunday in the first de facto preseason playoff game in NFL history.
I’m exaggerating, of course. This was not an exhibition football game. This was a certified NFL playoff contest, and the victory elevates the Patriots to the AFC Championship game Sunday night at Gillette Stadium against the Baltimore Ravens. The Bill Belichick-Tom Brady tandem has a chance to win a fourth Super Bowl in 12 seasons.
The Patriots beat the Ravens in the AFC title game last season and lost a 1-point decision to Baltimore in September. Sunday’s rematch could be the final curtain for Baltimore’s Ray Lewis and would give the Patriots a chance to avenge Super Bowl losses in 2008 and 2012. We’ve got great drama, all around.
But Sunday’s victory over the Houston Schaubs didn’t tell us much about the Patriots. The Sons of Belichick were weak on special teams, failed to keep their foot on the Texans’ throats, and have lost All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski for the rest of the season.
“It’s good to be able to play in the AFC Championship game,’’ said Belichick. “I’m really proud of our players. It wasn’t perfect. There’s certainly a lot of things we could do better.’’
Belichick had no comment on the Gronkowski injury. Gronk broke his left forearm Nov. 18 and hurt himself in the first quarter Sunday attempting to make a diving sideline catch.
Gronk or no Gronk, it is impossible to evaluate any team playing against the Houston Texans in December-January of 2012-13. The Texans went 11-1 at the start of this season but proved not-ready-for-prime-time when they were thrashed by the Patriots (42-14) here in December. They choked away the final two games of their season (losing home field and a first-round bye), staggered to a wild-card victory over the Cincinnati Bengals last weekend, and came to Foxborough desperate for respect and retribution.
They earned neither. Houston was awful. Again. Houston converted 4 of 15 third-down opportunities. The Texans allowed the Patriots to score 17 consecutive points in the first half, then got outscored, 21-0, in the first 17 minutes of the second half. It was a 17-13 game at halftime, and the final margin was a mere 13 points, but this game was never in doubt. The unwatchable Texans didn’t quit like they did here in December, but the Patriots led this one, 38-13, with 13 minutes left.
Everything you needed to know about Houston was demonstrated in the first 63 seconds.
Houston won the toss and elected to take the ball. This was the first indication that Texans coach Gary Kubiak was seriously overmatched. Everyone knows that the Patriots want you to have the ball at the start of a game. New England has not elected to take the ball at the start of a game since the 2008 season opener.
So Kubiak did what Belichick wanted. He took the ball. And it looked like a good decision when Danieal Manning returned the kickoff 94 yards to the New England 12-yard line.
Great opportunity. This was a chance for the much-mocked Texans to make a statement and take a 7-0 lead.
And what happened?
Nothing. Houston gained 3 yards on three plays. James Casey dropped a sure touchdown pass. The Texans settled for a 27-yard field goal.
Pathetic. It was a loud statement that the Texans were still afraid of the Patriots. The visitors led, 3-0, but were already beaten.
A TD run by Arian Foster (22 carries, 90 yards, seven receptions, a receiving touchdown, no quotes, no new avatars) and Shayne Graham’s 55-yard buzzer-beating field goal cut New England’s lead to 17-13 at intermission. This gave all the national television commentators a chance to pretend we had a real ballgame on our hands. But nobody at Gillette was buying. Anyone watching closely had a sense that this was not going to be a challenge for the Patriots.
New England confirmed this suspicion at the start of the third quarter with a seven-play, 69-yard touchdown drive capped by Stevan Ridley’s 8-yard run up the gut. Matt Schaub, a nine-year veteran with exactly one playoff victory under his belt, was not capable of bringing Houston back. Just when it looked like the Texans might be driving for a score, Schaub was picked off by linebacker Rob Ninkovich.
The Patriots converted the turnover into another touchdown, this time Brady (25 for 40, 344 yards, three TDs) connecting with Brandon Lloyd on a 5-yard strike. It was desperation time for Houston. Kubiak twice went for a first down on fourth and 1. Houston failed on the second try, which gave the Patriots the ball on the Houston 33.
Time for the dagger. On the first play after the failed fourth and 1, Brady feathered a 33-yard touchdown pass into the arms of Shane Vereen to make it 38-13.
“I think we’re going to be in it,’’ said Brady, who won his NFL-QB record 17th playoff wgame. “We have a lot of tough guys. We made some key plays when we needed to. I’ve been fortunate to play on some great teams over the years. I never take it for granted. I think the two best teams are in the finals. Baltimore deserves to be there and so do we.’’
“We know Baltimore’s tough,’’ said Belichick. “We had a great game with them down there earlier in the season.’’
Amazing. The Patriots are one victory from the Super Bowl and all they had to do was beat the Houston Texans. New England is 7-1 all time in the AFC Championship game.