Missing a few key players, the Patriots took the field at Gillette Stadium this Sunday confident in their backups. Among the missing were the Patriots leading receiver and second-leading rusher.
Tight end Benjamin Watson missed this game with an injured right knee, and rookie running back Laurence Maroney sat out his second consecutive game with torn rib cartilage.
Still, the Patriots were able to produce the 105 rushing and 129 passing yards needed to close the door on the pitiful looking Texans.
Receiver Reche Caldwell continued to standout as a go-to guy for Tom Brady, leading the team for the second time in three weeks with six catches for 25 yards. Rookie tight end David Thomas picked up some of Watson's slack, grabbing three passes for 24 yards.
Reciever Jabar Gaffney, who spent the last three seasons on the Texans roster, dropped a third-down pass in the Pats first drive, but Brady went back to him for a touchdown later in the game.
"No one likes to drop balls. I don't like to throw interceptions. When you do it, you just have to come back and have some resolve and have some vigor and be more determined, and he was and he is," said Brady after the game. "He is a tough guy and he fights hard. From a quarterback's standpoint, that is all you can ask for. No one is perfect out there. You just do the best you can do and sometimes it goes your way, but it is more about how you respond to it. Those receivers have responded and they are working hard to continue to catch the ball and run good routes, especially after a tough week like last week. We are all fighting hard. We are all working hard."
With Maroney missing his second game in a row, the other three running backs each performed well.
In the first quarter, running back Kevin Faulk contributed two touchdowns, tying a career record. The first came on an 11-yard run, and the second came on a 43-yard screen pass. He politely declined requests for an interview after the game, and was seen limping in the locker room with a compression wrap on his right leg.
"All of the backs, all of them, produced for us," said coach Bill Belichick after the game. "Heath [Evans] and Corey [Dillon] and Kevin. I think this is one of those games, I talked to Corey before the game about how important he was going to be in this one and it was going to be a lot on him. As usual, he stepped up and delivered for us for four quarters, as did Kevin, as did Heath. Those guys all, even though we were a little shorthanded at that position, they all stepped up and gave us real productive games."
Dillon led the team with 20 carries for 61 yards, and Evans teamed up with rookie linebacker Corey Mays on a key fourth-down tackle in the Texans first drive of the game. The tackle came on a fake punt.
"Corey had a great play," said Evans after the game. "I'm on the end making sure nothing comes around the side. We were just coached better on that play than they were. That's kind of the bottom line. We were ready for it. We were able to stuff it; we were prepared. (Special teams coach) Brad [Seely] had us all week, 'Gadget team, gadget team, gadget team.' So we knew, 'Hey, they want to come in here and get a win on our turf.' We were expecting everything."
The Patriots turned that fourth-down stop into their first touchdown of the game.
In addition to missing Watson and Maroney, the Pats defense had to play without its anchor, nose tackle Vince Wilfork who was inactive for this game due to an ankle injury.
Wilfork's workload was handled largely by Mike Wright, who recorded a tackle, a sack and a quarterback hurry in the game. Rookie Le Kevin Smith saw his first NFL action this week, subbing in at the nose tackle position late in the game.
After the game, Wright assumed responsibility for the Texans only scoring drive of the game, which came at the beginning of the second half. The Patriots were leading 27-0, but Houston was able to mount a 10-play, 70-yard drive that relied heavily on inside running plays by Ron Dayne.
"I thought I did a good job out there, other than that drive where I got out of my element, I guess. I was thinking a little bit too much," said Wright, whose 13-yard sack came in the second quarter. "Against an offense like that, you can't be [thinking too much]. And when they're stressing the run, you've got to really just knock the center back. I was kind of thinking of the blocking schemes a little bit too much and just got out of position a couple times.
"All-in-all, I felt comfortable in there. And I felt like I was able to hang in there and do my job and hold the middle down."
Dayne led the Texans ground game with 18 carries for 94 yards, and coincidentally Houston matched the Patriots running game with 105 yards.
Second-year defensive back Ellis Hobbs drained Houston of their second-half momentum quickly, immediately responding to the Texans touchdown by returning the ensuing kick off 93 yards for a touchdown. It was the first touchdown the Patriots special teams units have produced all season.
"They [were] coming off of a score when they drove the ball all the way down the field on us. When you get a situation like that you want to respond. You don't want that offense to get momentum and feel like they can do something. That is a big downer for them and a big morale lifter for us," said Hobbs after the game.
"Regardless of who you are, what year it is in the league for you, if you've started 50 games or two games, you're expected to go out and perform at a high level and we definitely had some guys step up and make some plays, like Mike Wright, like James [Sanders], like Tully [Banta-Cain]," said linebacker Rosevelt Colvin after the game. "A bunch of guys made plays, not just on defense, but in the kicking game. If we continue to work hard, hard work pays off. We have two more games left in this year and it starts with Jacksonville."
The final score was 40-7, and the Patriots travel to Jacksonville next weekend to take on the Jaguars in a Christmas Eve showdown.
Entering Sunday's game against the Texans, the Patriots had lost the football 11 times in the last three games, including three turnovers in last week's shutout loss to Miami. The Patriots weren't able to get a single take-away against the Dolphins.
In this game, however, the Patriots turned their fumbling ways completely around, recording four interceptions from Texans quarterback David Carr, and not turning it over to Houston once.
The Pats first interception came on the first play of the Texan's third drive, with eight minutes remaining in the first quarter. In the play, defensive end Richard Seymour batted a pass from David Carr, catching his own tipped pass for an interception. Four plays later, the Patriots turned the interception into a field goal.
Later in the first quarter, linebacker Tedy Bruschi tipped a pass intended for Houston receiver Eric Moulds, and safety James Sanders made a play on the misdirected ball, intercepting it and carrying it 21 yards before being tackled. Two plays later, the Patriots scored their second touchdown of the game, bringing the score to 17-0 before the beginning of the second quarter.
"It was a reach," said Bruschi after the game. "I just popped it up in the air for James and we were off and running.
"Sometimes you get turnovers, but they're on the negative end of the field and the offense still has 80 yards or 70 yards to go, but we put them on a short field today. That's what we've been talking about for the last couple weeks. That's our job: get turnovers and make it easier on our offense."
Hobbs had the team's third interception of the day in the third quarter, when he made a jump on a pass intended for the NFL's leading receiver, Andre Johnson.
"We understood what type of player he was," said Hobbs of Johnson. "We understood who they were trying to throw the ball to. Our main goal was to shut him down. If we shut him down, then we shut [David] Carr down. I think our D-line did a great job of getting in there, and really everyone pressuring the quarterback and making him throw the ball into situations he didn't want to throw it into. I think once he got kind of rattled out there, he was laying it out there for grabs."
The final interception of the game came two defensive plays later when Carr chucked one in the direction of rookie tight end Owen Daniels. Cornerback Asante Samuel grabbed it and ran for 33 yards before being brought down. Samuel entered the game in a three-way tie for the league lead in picks with seven, but he pulled ahead of the pack with his eighth interception of the season. His eight picks is a career-high, and marks the most single-season interceptions by a Patriots player since Ty Law had nine in 1998.
Both of the Patriots last two interceptions resulted in field goals, and the team's turnover ratio improved from an even zero to plus-4 against the Texans.
Quote of note:
Texans free safety Jason Simmons on bouncing back from this loss: "When we break it (the huddle) up we say, ' family' and that's what we are and we are going to stick together. Not one side of the ball lost the game, we all lost the game as a team."
Not there yet
The Patriots (10-4) lead the second-place New York Jets (8-6) by two games in the AFC East standings with two games to play. The Patriots would win the 2006 AFC East title with one win or tie in their last two games or one New York loss or tie in its last two games.
Gostkowski cleans up
Stephen Gostkowski nailed all four of his field goal attempts, connecting from 36 yards in the first quarter, from 32 yards in the second quarter, from 31 yards in the fourth quarter and 21 yards in the fourth quarter. His four field goals in the game mark a career high and he is the first Patriot to kick at least four successful field goals in a game since Nov. 14, 2004, when Adam Vinatieri nailed five against the Buffalo Bills. Gostkowski has connected on nine straight field goals and has hit 14 of his last 15 field goals (93.3 percent). He is 16-of-20 (80.0 percent) on the season.
After allowing seven points to the Texans, Patriots opponents are averaging just 13.79 points per game (193 points in 14 games). With two games still to play, the Patriots are in position to challenge the single-season record that was established in 2003 when New England allowed 14.88 points per game (238 points in 16 games).
Brady beats 100
Tom Brady completed 16-of-23 passes (69.6 percent) for 109 yards, two touchdowns and a 108.8 passer rating. Today's game was the fourth game this season in which Brady posted a passer rating of 100.0 or higher, and the Patriots are 4-0 in those games. Brady improved his career record to 36-1 when posting a passer rating of 100.0 or higher.
Double sacks for Banta-Cain
Tully Banta-Cain recorded two of the Patriots four sacks, notching his second multiple-sack game of the season and the third game of his career with more than one sack. Following the two sacks, he had totaled 5.5 sacks on the season, a mark that bests his previous career high of 1.5 sacks in 2004. Banta-Cain recorded a career-high 2.5 sacks at Minnesota on Oct. 30, 2006.