The big, blowout wins over the Jets and other ancillary foes are impressive, no doubt, but this is one of the games that will help determine what this team is really made of.
On Monday night, the New England Patriots host the Houston Texans in what might arguably be the biggest primetime game of the year, the 11-1 Texans looking to hold onto their No. 1 seed against the surging, 9-3 Patriots, who seem to never lose in December.
These teams might meet again down the road, possibly in the AFC title game, and where that game is held could hinge on what happens Monday night. The Patriots have an outside shot of grabbing that top seed, but they need to win Monday and hope for some help down the stretch.
In any event, this game is important primarily because it’s a measuring stick of sorts; the Patriots have beaten up on the teams they should be handling, but now they need to take down an elite opponent to really start turning some heads throughout the league.
Head coach Bill Belichick, of course, doesn’t look at it that way — at least not publicly. His team is treating it like just another game, even if there is a bit more at stake.
“We’re not really too worried about our record. We’re just worried about Houston,” Belichick said. “We know Houston is a good team. Whatever their record is — if it was 12-0, 11-1, 9-3, or whatever — we know they’re a good team.
“It doesn’t really matter what happened against some other team they might have played, whether they won or lost. It’s how we match up against them this week and how we do against them.
“We play good players, good coaches, and good teams every week. These guys, they’ve had a great season. I can see why their record is what it is. They have a good football team, but we’re not too worried about records. We’re worried about our preparation and our performance.”
With that said, this will be as tough a test as they’ll face all year. The Texans have an exceptional running game, a reliable quarterback, a disruptive, pass-rushing defensive end in J.J. Watt and a near-impenetrable run defense, which is ranked second in the league. There aren’t a lot of things they don’t do well on a weekly basis.
“They’re a very well-balanced team,” Belichick said. “They can run it, they play-action with the running game. If you’re stopping the run, you’re light on the play-action. If you’re stopping the play-action, you’re probably light on the run.
“They do a good job of tying those plays together, complementing each other and making you defend all of it. We saw that when we played them a couple years ago and we still see it. Everybody gets involved — the receivers, tight ends, the backs — they use all their players with good balance and they have a lot of them.”
They’re battle-tested, too. They endured back-to-back overtime games last month, including a barn-burner on Thanksgiving against the Lions, who pushed them to the brink before they finally won a field goal. Not every game has been a blowout, and they’ve shown remarkable poise on nights when the opponent brings its best.
That’s most likely what they’re expecting from the Patriots, who are typically at their best in December. They haven’t lost a game in December since 2009. This will be a tough streak to keep intact with the Texans in town, but the reality is it’s likely the furthest thing from their mind. They just want the win, regardless of what comes with it, and accomplishing that goal will give them a major advantage down the stretch.
“I think we’re trying to focus on playing well,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “The better you play, the better your home field advantage is because the more the crowd is into it. I think the mark of our teams over the years has been we’ve improved as the season has gone along.
“December is the last month to really improve. I think our team has always tried to; coach puts pressure on us in practice every day to improve to get better and not to make the same mistakes (and) to learn from our mistakes. I think we as a team have responded to that and played well. 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.”