FOXBOROUGH — The good news is the Patriots are hosting the AFC Championship game next Sunday. The bad news is that there was not any development that came out of Sunday’s vanilla victory over the Houston Texans in the divisional playoffs that made you more confident a fourth Lombardi Trophy will be taking up residence at Patriot Place.
This game was the equivalent of an open-book test for the Patriots. The AFC title-game rematch with the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday at Gillette Stadium will not be the same, and neither will the Atlanta Falcons or San Francisco 49ers if the Patriots reach Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though.
Sunday was simple survive and advance against the Texans, who, to their credit, didn’t fold up like a wallet when the Patriots built leads of 17-3 and 38-13. But this game was never really in doubt, and it wasn’t as close as the final score, 41-28, would indicate.
The real playoffs start next week against a Ravens team that sent Peyton Manning home and is on a mission to send Ray Lewis off into the sunset with another Super Bowl ring. The Patriots will be without Rob Gronkowski, who is done after reinjuring his forearm.
Forget about the 41 points, the 457 yards of offense, the 5.1 yards per rush, the 344 yards passing from Tom Brady, the 4-of-15 third-down defense —
“I think the two best teams are in the finals,” said Brady, who passed his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, for the most playoff victories as a quarterback, recording his 17th. “Baltimore certainly deserves to be here and so do we, so it’s very fitting. We played them early in the year; they got us . . . We’re going to have to play our best game this week.”
Gronkowski won’t even be available for decoy duty in the Super Bowl this year. After a week of military allusions in Foxborough, the all-world tight end is hors de combat for the rest of the postseason after he reinjured his left forearm on the Patriots’ second possession, catching a deep ball from Brady out of bounds with 8:10 left in the first quarter.
Gronk is the Patriots’ most irreplaceable player next to Brady. The physical replacement for Gronkowski was another long-named tight end, Michael Hoomanawanui.
But the reality is there is no way to replace Gronk, the Randy Moss of tight ends.
“That’s always a tough break,” said left guard Logan Mankins. “Everyone on the team loves Rob, loves him as a person and a player. It’s a tough break for him. It’s always a tough break for our team. But whoever gets put it that spot, they got to do the job, and we’re all counting on them to.”
The burden on offense will probably fall even more on the shoulders of Wes Welker, who made Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips wish that he was trying to figure out how to cover A.J. Green and not Welker. The slot receiver nonpareil had eight catches for a postseason-career-high 131 yards.
Welker’s 47-yard reception in the second quarter set up the second of Shane Vereen’s three touchdowns, an 8-yard pass from Brady that gave the Patriots a 17-3 lead.
Vereen was the Man of the Match, as they say, coming off the bench after Danny Woodhead was hurt on the Patriots’ first possession. He rushed for 41 yards and a score and caught five passes for 83 yards and two TDs, including a postcard-perfect 33-yarder that put the game out of reach early in the fourth quarter at 38-13.
If the Patriots had played their A game it probably would have been over right there. But Mankins admitted that they didn’t.
Everything in Texas is bigger, including the learning curve for what it takes to be a championship team. Sunday was a step forward for the Texans and voracious Globe reader Arian Foster, who came to play, but they still lag behind the Patriots, who are championship-driven, and not in the phony M.L. Carr way.
So, the Patriots were able to get away with some football faux pas on Sunday, the kind of mistakes that will send them home for the season if duplicated against Baltimore. New England’s kickoff coverage was abhorrent, allowing Houston’s Danieal Manning to return four kickoffs for 216 yards.
Manning returned the game’s opening kickoff 94 yards, but the Texans got stage fright and had to settle for a field goal. He also had kickoff returns of 35 yards in the second quarter and 69 yards in the fourth quarter that set up touchdowns that made the final score look respectable.
The first return came after the Patriots went up, 17-3, the second after a they built a 38-13 advantage.
The Ravens are not the team you want to be facing with Tip O’Neill Tunnel-sized holes in your kickoff coverage. Baltimore has one of the NFL’s top kickoff returners in Jacoby Jones, who averaged 30.7 yards per return this season and scored two touchdowns. He also returned a punt for a score.
“Obviously, we’ve played better complementary football games than we played tonight. That’s with us in the kicking game,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater. “That’s no mystery. You guys saw the game. We’re going to have to play better. We understand that. We have enough guys that take pride in what we do that hopefully we can go back and get it fixed because I know Jacoby is going to be licking his chops after watching the tape on that tonight. We’ve got to do better.”
Yes, they do.
The varsity rolls in this week in purple and black. Time to up your game, Patriots.