Patriots march on with imperfect victory over Texans

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots outscored their opponents 130-32 in the first quarter during the regular season. At halftime Saturday night, one Texans official noted that in preparation for their divisional playoff game here, they knew that if they could just withstand that initial onslaught, they would have a game.

But beating the Patriots -- at home, in a playoff game no less -- is more complicated than that because their formula for success even when other things break down is deceptively simple: they hang around waiting for the other guy to screw up.

So it was Saturday night in a game that will ensure a week of hand-wringing, dour news conferences and Belichickian teachable moments in New England, but which nonetheless ensured that there will, in fact, be another week of the season after the Patriots beat the Texans34-16 to advance to the AFC Championship Game next Sunday.

You'll want to read that final score again, maybe a few times, because the tone of despondency that permeated the Patriots' locker room after the game was notable. From listening to them, from looking at their faces, you would not know that the Patriots will host the AFC Championship Game against the winner of Sunday's game between the Chiefs and Steelers. The Patriots will undoubtedly be favored to advance to the Super Bowl as the AFC's No. 1 seed.

That it will be the Patriots' sixth consecutive appearance in the conference championship game is a staggering testament to the Patriots' consistent excellence. But it also means that for the Patriots, success is graded on a steep, almost unfairly harsh, curve. So Saturday night nearly had the whiff of failure. In surviving the Texans instead of smashing them as widely predicted -- no, 18 points does not count as smashing for the Patriots -- they looked as out of sorts and vulnerable as they have all season.

"It doesn't feel great because we worked pretty hard to play a lot better than we played," said Tom Brady, in a statement that is uniquely plausible in New England after a game like this.

Brady, who threw just two regular-season interceptions, equaled that number Saturday night, taking a battering from Texans defenders in the process, absorbing two sacks and eight hits. Jadeveon Clowney himself said Brady was rattled. Thirteen of the Texans' 16 points came off Patriots turnovers. A mindless unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Eric Rowe, when the Texans had just been stopped on third-and-18, led to the other three. The Texans never led, but until early in the fourth quarter it was a one-possession game.

What saved the Patriots were the Texans' well-documented offensive foibles, most particularly quarterback Brock Osweiler. The Texans had the ball for 32 minutes and 30 seconds of the game, a full five minutes more than the Patriots. But Osweiler threw three interceptions, and the offense was generally punchless, settling for three field goals. And when Osweiler uncorked his one scheduled beauty of a throw per night -- to the end zone, intended for Will Fuller late in the third quarter while trailing by just 11 points -- Fuller dropped it.

Still, even as the Patriots inexorably exerted control, resorting to a few wing-and-a-prayer bombs against a team intent on taking away the short and intermediate throws that are usually the Patriots' bread and butter, they never looked quite right and certainly not like the invincible force that had rolled through the regular season with just one loss on Brady's watch. Brady said it was one of those nights when the offense never got into a rhythm, but actually they did, for one drive. In the third quarter, they marched 90 yards on nine plays and Brady finished it with a perfectly placed 19-yard pass over a defender's shoulder into James White's hands for a touchdown. The problem was that the Patriots never looked that smooth, that relentless, that efficient again. It was hard to escape the notion that if the Patriots had been facing a decent quarterback -- or even a merely mistake-free one -- they might not be moving on. It will not go unnoticed that both Ben Roethlisberger and Alex Smith far exceed those descriptions.

"We made plays when we had to, but if we want to keep winning and move on, we can't play like that," said Julian Edelman, who caught eight passes for 137 yards. "We're going to have to build off the things we did decent and focus on trying to take care of the ball."

Only the Patriots could dismantle a team so thoroughly that they send an opponent spiraling into an offseason of doubt, no small amount of second-guessing, and a very real quarterback controversy and still spend the aftermath picking at their mistakes like so many scabs.

The Patriots are in pursuit of their fifth Super Bowl title and the signage around Gillette Stadium in the last few days broadcasts the mantra of this January clearly: One More.

There might be more than that left in the tank for the Patriots of Belichick and Brady. But together they have crafted a strikingly unforgiving era. It was why the locker room was unusually quiet for a winner Saturday night, why the expressions were so sour. Another team will come to town next weekend and whether it is the Steelers or Chiefs, they will assuredly be more balanced than the Texans were. That will make them more of a test for a team that didn't look ready to pass a more difficult one Saturday.

They don't have much time to get ready, but they won't waste any of that time enjoying this imperfect victory. The Patriots have been accused of executing joyless marches to their titles and maybe this is just another one of those in progress. But on Saturday, the grimness seemed more genuine, not just the product of the Patriots' flatline focus, as if the Patriots had received a real scare, or at least what counts for a scare by their standards.

So onward the Patriots go, finding only a little relief in advancing. Brady, his eye-black still smeared on his cheeks and a smile never creasing his face, took a long pause when he was asked what it means to go to six conference championship games in a row.

"Um ... pretty cool," he said, sounding as if he really wasn't impressed at all. "To win the AFC Championship Game, that would be very cool."

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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