FOXBOROUGH – Like many of New England's games this season, the Divisional Playoff versus Houston felt all week like a foregone conclusion – an annoying formality between the Patriots and yet another AFC Championship Game appearance.
Odds-makers in Las Vegas pegged the Patriots as one of the highest favorites in playoff history. Patriots players and coaches certainly seemed to be taking it seriously during their week of preparations, but the rest of us already knew what to expect, right?
It was clear from the get-go that Houston's offense was overmatched. They managed to put 13 points on the scoreboard – a pair of field goals and a touchdown – only because of a trio of uncharacteristic Patriots mistakes.
An Eric Rowe penalty on what would have been a punt-forcing third-down stop kept Houston's first scoring drive alive. During a post-whistle scuffle involving several players from both teams, Rowe jumped into the fray and tried to pull a Texans player off of one of his New England teammates. That's in the rule book as an automatic personal foul, so, referee Pete Morelli had no choice but to call it.
Then a rare Tom Brady interception – off the hands of WR Michael Floyd – and a Dion Lewis fumbled kickoff gave the Texans the football deep in Patriots territory on two separate occasions. Houston took advantage with a second field goal, followed by a touchdown.
Otherwise, New England's defense was doing its job, pressuring Brock Osweiler in the backfield and knocking down passes downfield.
"We've been there before. We didn't panic," observed CB Logan Ryan, who was all over the field Saturday night. "We made them kick a lot of field goals, and we knew field goals weren't going to beat us. We did a good job responding."
Meanwhile, Brady and the offense mostly struggled throughout the first half. The QB was feeling some heat from Houston's defensive front, as evidenced by a pair of first-half sacks, both times forcing New England to punt. Lewis's 13-yard touchdown reception on the second Patriots drive notwithstanding, New England managed to move the ball into Texans territory only after a couple of throw-it-up-and-hope deep passes by Brady to wide receivers Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman.
"It's been vice versa. We've been in that same position, when the offense had to get us going," safety Duron Harmon remarked afterward. "That's part of having a good team. When you have good offense, good defense, good special teams, you can spell each other out during dry spells and eventually get each other going."
The Brady-to-Hogan-and-Edelman deep balls continued into the second half, helping to set up Brady's 19-yard TD toss to RB James White in the middle of the third quarter. That gave the Patriots a 24-13 lead.
Safety/co-captain Devin McCourty's nicely-read interception on Houston's next possession held the Texans off for a bit longer. Houston WR Will Fuller dropped a sure touchdown pass in the end zone at the end of the third quarter, but Brady's second INT of the night – off a deflected pass again – gave Houston a second chance. They kicked a field goal to trim the lead to 24-16 at the start of the fourth quarter.
Ryan's timely fourth-quarter INT of Osweiler in the Texans' red zone helped put the game out of reach. Lewis scored for the third time two plays later, and Stephen Gostkowski later added a field goal that made the score 34-16. Safety Duron Harmon sealed the victory with a late interception.
"Defense played a good football game," said Edelman. "We made plays when we had to, but if we want to keep winning and move on [in the playoffs], we can't play like that. So, we're definitely going to have to have a good week of preparation this upcoming week, learn from the stuff we didn't do too well, build off the things we did decent."
Despite struggling offensively for much of the game, the Patriots managed to cover the enormous Las Vegas spread of 16 points, but it didn't exactly feel like it was as easy as the final score might indicate.
Give Houston a ton of credit for putting up a solid fight when virtually no one gave them a chance to do so. Their defense disrupted New England's offense all night and the Texans' offense, though less than stellar, never gave up hope.
Perhaps the Patriots needed this wake-up call. The opponent they'll face next week, and potentially thereafter in the Super Bowl, will be even tougher than the Texans.
"Definitely," said Harmon. "Being in all different situations helps: being up, being down, being in uncomfortable situations makes you a better football team."
"Don't get me wrong, anytime you win a game in the playoffs, it's a great thing, but we've got to improve," added Edelman. "It's fun to win one game in the playoffs, but it's not where your mind's at."
"Got to get back to work, correct the mistakes we made today," Lewis asserted. "We know we have to play a lot better next week to get where we want to go."
"There's definitely room for improvement," DE Rob Ninkovich maintained. "Excited to come through with a victory. Hard-fought game… That's the way playoffs go."