gdrv_sm.jpgby Scott Benson

It’s unlikely that the Patriots swayed any skeptics with their 40-7 win over the visiting Houston Texans today.

They shouldn’t have, really. The Texans are one of the league’s worst clubs and don’t in any way measure up to the kind of competition the Patriots will face in the upcoming NFL playoffs. Their mistakes virtually assured the Pats of a win in their final home game of the regular season.

Still, today’s complete victory may have showed some incremental gain in New England’s fight to right their listing ship over the final three weeks.

The Patriots neither fumbled nor were intercepted, and penalties were held to a bare minimum. They limited their own errors and jumped all over those made by their opponents’. For once, they executed the playbook instead of executing themselves. The sloppy play and mental mistakes that kept equally-bad Detroit in a game here two weeks ago were virtually eliminated, at least for today.

For one of the few times this season, the Patriots had handled a lesser team the way they are expected to. Naturally, all this really accomplishes is a little better night’s sleep for the Pats tonight. Only several weeks of this kind of play will hold any real meaning for the team and its fans.

Despite missing key players like Vince Wilfork, Ben Watson and Laurence Maroney, New England performed efficiently in all phases of the game, with an uncommonly strong effort coming from the special teams.

The Patriots defense intercepted David Carr four times with athleticism and smarts. They held the NFL’s leading receiver Andre Johnson and noted Patriots killer Eric Moulds to a combined 9 catches for a paltry 52 yards. Without Wilfork, they bent slightly under the sheer girth of Ron Dayne, but never to the extent that Houston threatened competitiveness. Despite being again undermanned, the Patriots defense put up a complete effort against the bumbling Texans. They gained an early advantage in field position and steadfastly held it for the rest of the day.

Kevin Faulk gave the Patriots offense a much needed jolt of electricity, scoring twice on impressive bursts, one a perfectly executed 43 yard screen pass. Reche Caldwell had 6 catches for just 25 yards, but three of them were for first downs that extended scoring drives. The offensive line that struggled so badly against Miami was all over the field today, roaming wide to wall off the screens and often getting to the second level in the running game. Tom Brady managed a relatively close-to-the-vest passing game with little error, and when presented with a short field, he made sure he put points on the board.

Four times those scores came by the foot of rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who ran his season mark to 17 of 21 kicks. He’s now made ten in a row since missing against Indy in early November. The rookie also had his best kickoff day in weeks, even hitting the end zone when he kicked into the wind. Ken Walter dropped 3 of 4 punts inside the 20, and both coverage teams closed off Houston return threat Dexter Wynn. The Patriots special teams answered the bell today. Never more so than when Ellis Hobbs – returning kicks in relief of the injured Maroney – answered the Texans only score with by splitting the Houston coverage behind a Willie Andrews block for a brilliant 93 yard touchdown.

The game, however, was essentially decided before the first quarter was complete.

The Patriots’ first possession off the opening kick yielded nothing, other than a gut wrenching Jabar Gaffney drop of a perfectly thrown Brady bomb. It would have been a sure 55 yard touchdown had Gaffney kept his eyes on the ball, but he didn’t. When Ken Walter followed with a terrible punt, and Wynn answered with a 15 yard return, you had to wonder if more of the same – spotty execution – was on the way.

Houston then quickly gave the stuggling Pats an early opportunity to take the lead. When the Pats turned Houston’s first series aside on a 3rd and short at the Texans 42, Gary Kubiak inexplicably called for a fake punt on a direct snap to short man Jason Simmons. Again New England got penetration (Mike Reiss later reported that Corey Mays made the play) and stopped the fake before Simmons was able to sneak for the first.

After featuring the pass on his first series, Brady then went to the ground, and Corey Dillon ran for 20 yards on two carries, sandwiched around the first of Caldwell’s drive extending catches. Kevin Faulk carried to the left on 1st and 10 from the Houston 11, and the Pats o-line allowed Faulk to burst in untouched for the early touchdown lead.

Richard Seymour immediately set up Brady and the offense again. On the Texans first play, Seymour leapt and tipped a Carr pass to himself at the Houston 24, an athletic and heady play. The Patriots defense was doing everything it could to make life easy for an offensive unit that had been shut out just seven days before.

This time Brady could not move the ball. He didn’t lose it either, which these days qualifies as an accomplishment. Gostkowski at least put points on the board with a 36 yarder for the 10-0 lead.

Back came Carr, and there again was the Patriots defense. Receiver David Anderson made his first pro catch for the longest Houston play of the day, a 27 yarder that moved the ball to midfield. Another first down put the ball into Pats territory, but when Carr faded back on the next play, he didn’t see Tedy Bruschi waiting in the middle of the Pats coverage. Like Seymour, Bruschi leapt and tipped a Carr throw, and an alert James Sanders grabbed the carom for the Patriots second pick in as many series.

Brady would pick up the ball on Houston’s side of the 50 again, and after a short Dillon plunge, Brady pulled off a flawlesss screen to his left, where Faulk waited behind a wall of unoccupied Pats blackers. Faulk raced for the 1st down, then just kept on going until he found the end zone. That he was never seriously challenged by a Houston player is a testament to the design and particularly the execution of the play.

The Patriots led 17-0 with three and a half minutes still to play in the first quarter. The game was for all intents and purposes over. The Patriots added 10 more points before halftime (another Gostkowski kick, followed by a 7 play, 67 yard drive that ended with a sharp Brady throw to Jabar Gaffney at the left rear flag) while a conservative Houston tried to get to the locker room without shooting itself in the foot again.

Asante Samuel added to his league leading interception total with a second half pick that nearly ended up in the end zone. Hobbs, who has frequently taken a back seat to Chad Scott lately, also drifted back in coverage to grab an errant Carr throw for his third interception of the year.

Ty Warren and Richard Seymour held fast at the Patriots line, and mitigated the absence of nose man Wilfork. Stand-in Mike Wright broke up a Texans screen by racing to dump Carr before he could do anything with the ball. Tully Banta Cain had a strip sack (recovered by Houston) and applied consistent pressure all day. Bruschi was steady again in the middle, and Sanders may be developing into a capable backup in the reed-thin Pats secondary.

Corey Dillon turned in 60 yards on a modest 3 yard average, but he led a Pats run game that was at times a steadying influence. The Pats did stick with the run today (34/28 run pass split, not counting four knees taken by Vinny Testaverde at the end), even on those third and shorts that have lately been all pass. The Patriots only rarely went very far upfield today; most of the passes were screens and little short possession routes. They even ran the ball on consecutive downs a few times. Be still my heart. I’m hopeful this was aknowledgement that one way to cut down on the turnovers is to draw the ball a little closer to the vest.

Some may find it worrisome that the Patriots were only 2 of 6 inside the red zone today despite scoring 33 points. The Pats have been among the top teams in red zone efficiency this year, so maybe they missed Watson and Maroney. Or maybe they were still working off the effects of their embarrassment in Miami. I liked their cautious, ball-control approach. I like how none of those scoring opportunities came up dry through a fumble or interception.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about today was the a few of the Patriots younger players saw considerable fourth quarter time with the game out of hand.

On defense, linebackers Pierre Woods and Corey Mays played alongside Tedy Bruschi, and on offense, tight end David Thomas was there as a valuable outlet to Brady throughout, while Kelvin Kight logged a number of snaps at receiver (playing more than Chad Jackson) while flashing a few blocking chops. The Patriots need all they help they can get, and the added experience increases the chance that one of these youngsters might make a play someday, like Mays apparently did today.

Sixty minutes of mistake-free football was a nice relief today, but even a 33 point win over the Texans will do little to quell our deeper fears about the football mortality of these Patriots. At best, today may have been a small step in the right direction.

At least they took it. Consider the alternative.