In the Texans’s corner, it was Smith, Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, and J.J. Watt, coming into a hostile Gillette Stadium to play what was clearly a measuring-stick game with playoff implications.
In the Patriots corner, Matt Slater, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, and Logan Mankins were steely-eyed, having won 12 straight games in December dating to 2009. They had only themselves to measure up to.
The Patriots captains didn’t bother looking at the Texans. They looked through them. When they shook hands, they shook hands firmly.
When the Patriots won the coin toss, Wilfork didn’t bother waiting for referee Terry McAulay to ask what they wanted to do.
“We’ll defer,” he rushed out.
Smith, a movie buff, said a part of him flashed to a scene in the Brad Pitt film “Troy”. All he could think was Achilles saying to Hector, “Now you know who you’re fighting.”
The Patriots dictated the coin toss. And in what Johnson could only describe as “a good [butt] whipping,” they dictated the game, snapping the Texans’ six-game winning streak with a 42-14 win and putting a small crack in a team that had every reason to be confident coming in.
“It was very surprising,” linebacker Connor Barwin said. “I didn’t see it turning out like this at all.”
At 11-2, the Texans still own the AFC’s best record, but after coming in and being decimated by the defending conference champions, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said, “It doesn’t feel like we have more wins than New England right now.”
Things malfunctioned from the start. On the first play from scrimmage, the Texans were whistled for an illegal formation that set them back five yards, negating a 12-yard run by Arian Foster.
“That’s really concerning when you know what you’re fixing to do the first play of the game for about three days and you still line up wrong,” said coach Gary Kubiak.
They dealt themselves the same kinds of self-inflicted wounds all game, with pass interference penalties keeping the Patriots on the field on third down or turnovers taking the Texans off of it prematurely.
“We’re doing things that hurt our team, and when you’re playing a team like that and you hurt yourself you’re going to get beat like that,’’ Kubiak said. “That’s the way it went.”
“We were really taught what championship football is.”Texans linebacker Bradie James
Schaub threw for 232 yards on 19-of-32 passing, was sacked twice, finished with a 68.8 passer rating, and threw a pick in the end zone to Devin McCourty in the first quarter when the Texans were driving for the tying score.
As a team, the Texans converted just 4 of 14 third downs, relying on Johnson (8 catches, 95 yards) as their primary source of offense.
Meanwhile, they watched Tom Brady throw for 296 yards and four touchdowns as if it were routine. Vince Wilfork was a menace, batting down passes and harassing Schaub. And beyond that, the Patriots managed to get the breaks. When Watt stripped Danny Woodhead inside the Texans’ 10-yard line early in the fourth quarter, the ball bounced into the end zone, where receiver Brandon Lloyd was the only one within miles of it. It put the Patriots up, 35-7, and put the Texans in white-flag mode.
“We were really taught what championship football is,” said Texans linebacker Bradie James. “This is a tough one to swallow.”
With a chance to clinch the division next week against the Colts, the Texans’ only option is to move on.
But they’ll do it knowing if they want to reach the Super Bowl, they’ll likely have to see the Patriots again.
“If we handle our business there’s a very good chance they’re going to have to come to Houston,” Foster said. “We know that they know that.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.