By: Bob George/
December 11, 2012

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FOXBOROUGH -- The Baltimore Ravens gave the Patriots a big gift on Sunday by losing to Washington and giving the Patriots the inside track to the two seed and a bye.

And on Monday night, the Houston Texans gave the Patriots a bigger gift.

Though the Texans are currently still the top seed in the AFC with an 11-2 record, the Patriots pulled to within one game of the conference lead with a resounding 42-14 win over the Texans on Monday night at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots used an early 21-0 run to take control of the game, then went on cruise control and basically never allowed the Texans to do to them what they had done to the rest of the league.

The game turned out to be the first road loss for Houston of the season, but in the long haul it could be far worse. The Texans still have two meetings left with their closest pursuer, the Colts, and now they lose a tiebreaker with the Patriots. The Patriots have one more rough game left, next Sunday night against San Francisco at home, then two easy concluding games against Florida teams (at Jacksonville, Miami). End result? The Patriots could be looking at still another top playoff seed.

Leading the way was Tom Brady and a defense which made big plays when it had to, never allowing the big offensive guns of Houston to take over the game. Brady led the Patriots on an early blitz, scoring touchdowns on each of the first three Patriot offensive possessions. Meanwhile, Devin McCourty thwarted an early Houston scoring drive with an end zone interception of Matt Schaub in the first quarter which really seemed to put the Houston offense in a funk all game long.

The Patriots opened with a 56-yard drive. A leaping grab by Wes Welker for 24 yards set up a seven-yard scoring pass from Brady to Aaron Hernandez, who beat linebacker Bradie James in the left flat and took a perfect toss into the end zone. McCourty's pick, which was the result of Schaub misfiring towards Kevin Walter, set the Patriots off on an 82-yard scoring drive. Brady ate up the yards in huge chunks, hitting Lloyd for 13 yards with Johnathan Joseph in coverage, Danny Woodhead beating Darryl Sharpton over the middle for a 19-yard screen toss, Hernandez beaing Kareem Jackson for 13 yards, and then Brady hit a wide open Brandon Lloyd on a deep post pattern for 37 yards and a touchdown.

After holding Houston on 4-and-out, Brady used Wes Welker to drive the Patriots down the field. A controversial pass interference penalty on Danieal Manning begat two throws to Welker for 27 yards. On first and goal at the four, the Texan defense did not account for Hernandez lining up at the left wideout position, and Brady found him for an easy touchdown to make it 21-0 Patriots early in the second quarter.

From this point on, the Patriot offense stalled for the next four offensive possessions, three of them being three-and-out. Brady went on a one-for-seven passing slump, throwing mostly lob throws downfield into tight coverage which were either overthrown or knocked down. Houston had a golden opportunity to get back into the game

But the Patriot defense would not allow that to happen. Vince Wilfork killed one drive with a J.J. Watt-esque bat down of a pass on third down. Houston sustained a drive all the way to the Patriot 33, but on fourth and five Walter dropped a first down completion with Kyle Arrington draped all over him. Aqib Talib killed another drive by making a spectacular near-pick on a deep ball to Andre Johnson, though Talib was hurt on the play and did not return. It was 21-0 Patriots at the half and a total domination by the home team of the best team in the AFC.

The Patriots began the second half with a punt after 7 plays, but Alfonzo Dennard stopped the Texans cold with a brilliant tackle on Johnson a yard shy of a first down on the ensuing drive to force a three-and-out. The Patriots finally broke through on the next drive as former Patriots Donte Stallworth was able to slip in behind the Texan secondary and haul in a 63-yard scoring bomb, his only catch of the game, to make it 28-0 Patriots.

Houston was able to finally get on the board with an eight-play, 88-yard drive with Arian Foster barreling in from one yard out for the score. But after an exchange of three-and-outs, the Patriots put the game away with a kooky play early in the fourth quarter. On second down and ten at the Houston 27, Danny Woodhead took a screen pass in the right flat, sidestepped a tackle and ran towards the end zone. Watt batted the ball out of his hands around the nine-yard line, but the ball was batted into the end zone and Lloyd was able to fall on the ball for a touchdown and a 35-7 Patriot lead.

Stevan Ridley would ice the game on the next drive with six carries for 37 yards, the last 14 of them carrying him into the end zone. The drive smacked of the last drive last week against Miami, as Houston was too tired to stop the Patriot running game any longer.

Brady finished the game 21 of 35 passing for 296 yards, four touchdowns and a rating of 125.4. His rating was almost double that of Schaub. Ridley and Shane Vereen combined for 112 yards rushing and a 4.3 average per carry. On a night where Welker basically had an off night with misfires and dropped passes, Lloyd stole the show with seven catches for 89 yards and a touchdown. Hernandez had two touchdown catches.

The Patriots passed the first test of their two-game jolt in December, and now get the 49ers next Sunday night at Gillette. While the game means nothing in the conference, the Patriots need to win to send a message to a future Super Bowl opponent, and keep on track to get a first round bye. If the Patriots win out, Houston would also need to win out to secure the top seed in the AFC.

But after Monday night, who can doubt that the Patriots deserve that one seed more than Houston does? With all the weapons on both sides of the ball that Houston has, the Patriots neutralized every one of them. This was an 11-1 team the Patriots manhandled on Monday night, and it comes at just the right time. December continues to be a great month for the Patriots, who again are peaking at just the right time.

Now come the 49ers, the team Bob Kraft hoped the Patriots would become some day. It's the Yorks that run the show, not the DeBartolos (okay, Jed's mom is Edward's sister, but you get the idea). The 49ers almost went to the show last year.

Another week, another huge game. Bring it on.