FOXBOROUGH, MASS. - They came here under the bright lights of prime time to make a statement, not just to themselves but for the significant football constituency that doubted them.
Instead, the Houston Texans were forced to sit in the corner and take the lessons, given in commanding style by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
It was a textbook lecture about big-boy football and what it takes to excel at a time of year when it really matters.
It was as big a mismatch at the quarterback as you can expect from two playoff bound teams: Brady vs. Matt Schaub.
And it was too easy really, a result determined just four minutes into the second quarter when the Patriots opened up a 21-0 lead enroute to a 42-14 pounding at Gillette Stadium.
Game of the year? The Patriots have a way of crushing that story line.
Player of the year? Based on his play over the past month, it could be Brady in a landslide.
With a four-touchdown performance — the 18th of his career — Brady and his quick-breaking receivers rolled to a seventh consecutive win and the 10-3 Patriots are favoured in style, performance and the betting line to return to the Super Bowl for the sixth time in the past 12 years.
At 11-2, the Texans may still own a share of the NFL’s best record, but have to be reeling after such a debacle.
They may get over this one, but don’t be so sure. You can’t take their playoff spot away, but some of their dignity was left in the unseasonably warm New England night. Two of their three remaining games are against the improved Colts and there exists, then, the possibility of a slide down the AFC playoff seeding chart.
The Patriots could be the big beneficiary of that of course after they easily swatted aside the Texans as 51/2-point favourites.
A Brady-led touchdown toss to Aaron Hernandez 5:33 into the game was followed by a Schaub interception in the end zone that highlighted the mismatch. Where Brady always seems to find the open man, and often mere seconds after the ball is snapped, Schaub threw into double coverage leaving a wide open receiver frustrated in the corner of the end zone.
The Patriots were ruthless in their attack, a vintage plan crafted by coach Bill Belichick and executed magnificently by Brady, who may thrive in prime time like no quarterback before him. His record on Monday Night Football is now 13-4 and nine times he has thrown three touchdowns or more on that stage.
For the Texans, the lessons were painful and just might leave a mark. It was their belief, after all, that they could compete against the elite, an assignment that still needs work.
Menacing defensive end J.J. Watt may be able to bat down passes against divisional weaklings Jacksonville and Tennessee — victims of four Houston wins already this year — but against an offence like this, different story.
Put it this way: They best hope they don’t draw Brady or Peyton Manning in the post-season. In two regular-season games against elite quarterbacks, the Texans have now surrendered an unacceptable 10 touchdowns through the air to the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers (six) and Brady (four.) Make it 12 over three games if you add the Broncos’ Manning into that equation.
The worst of it was that the Texans actually moved the ball at times, but simply made it too easy for Brady who was on fire from the outset. On their opening drive, they allowed Wes Welker to return a punt 41 yards to the Patriots 44. Like Brady needs a short field.
The Devin McCourty interception led to another touchdown and the rout was on. By the time Brady threw his fourth of the night, it was showtime.
The highlight — as if it was needed — was a 63-yard bomb from Brady to Donte Stallworth in the third quarter on another suspect example of pass coverage from the Texans.
Late in the same period, Brady rushed six yards for a first down to keep a drive alive and jumped up pumping his fist in the air to fire up the crowd. Of course, that drive also ended in a touchdown to make it 35-7 early in the fourth quarter.
The Texans had an idea what they were up against but perhaps not precisely what they were in for.
“You’ve got one of the all-time great leaders in football from a coaching standpoint and a quarterback standpoint,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said earlier in the week. “You know you’re going to have to raise your level of play.”
And now they’ll have to hope for another chance - and recover soon enough to take advantage of it.