FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – As has been his habit through the years, New England Patriots great Tom Brady punctuated a particularly satisfying play by punching his fist in the air. This bit of gesticulation came on the final play of the third quarter Monday night against the big, burly Houston Texans, a team that had cut a swath through the AFC to this point.
Brady, who last week welcomed the birth of his third child, was more like Juan Manuel Marquez landing the perfect punch on Manny Pacquiao on Saturday night. In fact, the Patriots (10-3) landed punch after punch against Houston as they walked away with a 42-14 win.
This is the kind of game that makes you wonder if Houston will be able to pick itself off the canvas. As impressive as Houston had generally been in piling up what is now an 11-2 record and control of the No. 1 seed in the AFC, there is an issue plaguing the Texans that's as open and obvious as Pacquiao's unguarded face at the moment Marquez struck.
The Texans can't defend the pass, especially when the passer is of Brady's ilk. In three games against Brady, Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay (another team that put up 42 on Houston) and Denver's Peyton Manning, the Texans have gotten lit up like a Christmas tree. They have allowed 12 touchdown passes and gotten zero interceptions in those three contests, two resulting in losses. In this game, Brady finished 21 of 35 for 296 yards and four TDs. Earlier this season, Rodgers was 24-of-37 for 338 yards and six TDs in a 42-24 win.
Even more, Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Jacksonville's Chad Henne threw a combined six TDs and no interceptions against Houston in back-to-back overtime games last month. Those numbers are going to radiate like a scarlet letter for the Texans until they can prove otherwise.
"No question, we're going to get asked that question," Houston safety Danieal Manning said. "We're going to get that about how they were able to tear through our defense until we do something about it. We all know that."
Linebacker Connor Barwin tried to downplay the issue, saying the Texans wouldn't "blow this one out of proportion."
The problem is, the media will.
"That's a good point and that's a fair question until we beat those guys," Barwin said.
Defensive tackle J.J. Watt summed it up best when he politely told a group of reporters in the hallway under Gillette Stadium, "Not now" as he didn't even break stride on the way to the team bus.
At this rate, the Texans will be lucky to avoid a one-and-done playoff appearance if they don't make fixes in a hurry. One silver lining is that they might not have to face New England or Denver again until the AFC championship game if Baltimore continues to fade and ends up with the No. 4 seed.
But what happened to the Texans on Monday night goes way beyond playoff seeding and strategy. It's the kind of game that can gnaw at the confidence of the most proud team. By the early part of the second quarter, the Texans stood on the sidelines with the lifeless look of a team that didn't quite get what was happening.
Sure, the Texans created some of these problems with a rash of mistakes. From their opening play – a 5-yard penalty for illegal formation that negated a good run by Arian Foster – Houston played like a team out of sync.
"The first play of the game and you mess that up after practicing all week?" Houston head coach Gary Kubiak asked, rhetorically.
In a word, that's disconcerting. The Texans made it worse later on when they failed to recover a fumble on New England's first touchdown drive. Those early errors started a landslide that had the Texans down 21-0 by early in the second quarter.
"They make you look really bad … if you're not on top of your stuff," Kubiak said.
Barwin again tried to minimize the disastrous outing, saying, "We just weren't opportunistic." Yeah, as if a couple of plays might have changed everything. The reality was put better later on when Barwin was pushed about what the team could do differently.
"Well, we know we can … " Barwin stopped in mid-sentence, not exactly sure how to fill in the rest of that statement. Finally, he said simply, "We didn't play our best."
The deeper question with three weeks to play is whether Houston's best is good enough.
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