The New England Patriots may not have the best record in the AFC, but they are the consensus best team in the conference.
The Houston Texans had a dangerous proposition ahead of them: to play the best December team, and one of the best home teams in recent years, in December on its home field.
They entered Willy Wonka's chocolate factory with big dreams of one day being in their place as the top dog in the AFC, but the Patriots delivered an emphatic message in their win.
We've seen the Patriots impose their will on opponents in plenty of games like this, but will the team keep their momentum headed into the playoffs? Most importantly, will they carry this momentum through the playoffs?
Let's take a look at where the Patriots stand and where they could be headed from here.
The defense, however, hasn't gotten enough credit for its stalwart performance against the Texans on Monday night, nor has it gotten credit for across-the-board improvements, the kind we've come to expect from Bill Belichick's group down the stretch.
Deep balls? No problem.
Can't win without turnovers? Says who? (Oh, wait...)
Can't get stops on third down? Sure it can.
New England is on a playoff warpath, but as we all know, it's not as much about "getting hot at the right time" as it is learning what the weaknesses are and then evolving. Thus far, it looks like the Patriots have done that—especially on defense—but we won't know for sure until January.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski is returning to practice, according to reports, and while he will probably not return this week and may not return until the playoffs, his return to activity is promising for his health for the playoffs.
Also, wide receiver Donte Stallworth is going on injured reserve after hurting his ankle against the Texans, thus making his 63-yard touchdown catch the first, last and only catch for Stallworth with the Patriots in 2012.
Cornerback Aqib Talib injured his hip in the first half against the Texans, and although he returned to the sideline after the injury, he did not return to action and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the 49ers.
Tom Brady: OK, so it's hard for Brady's stock to go up when he's having an MVP season, but dominating the Texans' top-ranked pass defense may have been just what he needed to seal that award.
He threw four touchdowns for the second time this season and has his fourth-best passer rating of the year.
The Texans defense may get a little more credit than it deserves, having given up 37 points and 502 passing yards to Chad Henne and the Jaguars, but Brady's early dominance was superb, especially against Houston's feared blitz (14-for-21, 159 yards, 3 touchdowns).
Brandon Lloyd: It's been a quiet few weeks for Brandon Lloyd, who had caught just eight passes in the previous three games, including just one against the Miami Dolphins, before he hauled in seven passes for 89 yards and a touchdown.
Lloyd hasn't been a dynamic threat for the Patriots offense, but he has added a missing piece to the puzzle. The Patriots may have struggled in past years to expose the Texans' weakness at cornerback, but Lloyd provided a perfect weapon for this game.
Dan Connolly/Sebastian Vollmer: The two were beat soundly by Texans defensive end J.J. Watt on a number of rushes, allowing Brady to get hit multiple times.
Brady was sacked only once on the night to defensive end Whitney Mercilusm, and putting these two in this category may be splitting hairs considering the level of their opponent, but in searching for negatives, this one stood out.
Stevan Ridley: Had 18 carries for 72 yards (4.0 YPA) and a touchdown, but had a fumble on the goal line. Aaron Hernandez recovered the ball, but it was nearly a costly mistake to start the game.
It wasn't the brainfart kind of fumble we see from the Eagles on a regular basis, but was a team effort by safety Danieal Manning, defensive tackle Earl Mitchell and linebacker Bradie James. The coaching staff certainly didn't hold it against Ridley; he still played 40.8 percent of the offensive snaps, the most at the running back position.
- We say it every year, but this may be one of Bill Belichick's finest coaching jobs for all the reasons mentioned above in regards to the defense's drastic improvement. Many of this team's most glaring weaknesses from earlier in the year have become afterthoughts. Is he the greatest coach in NFL history? The Patriots have won 10 or more games in 10 consecutive seasons, making Belichick the only coach in NFL history who can make that claim.
- The Patriots pass defense has been the target of much of the hysteria this year and had allowed a 92.8 passer rating through Week 10. Over the past four weeks, though, it's yielding just a 72.4 passer rating to its opponents, an improvement of over 20 points.
- The Patriots have had a different leading receiver for each of the past four games: Rob Gronkowski against the Colts, Shane Vereen against the Jets, Wes Welker against the Dolphins and Lloyd this week. The Patriots can attack a defense so many ways through the air; they should be incredibly tough to stop in the playoffs.
At 10-3 and holding the second-best record in the conference, the Patriots have the inside track to the No. 2 seed if they win their final three games. They would need Houston to lose at least one more game in order to earn the conference's top overall seed.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves; the Patriots face one of their toughest opponents of the season this week in the San Francisco 49ers.
If the Patriots come out with a win, they can practically coast to the AFC's No. 2 overall seed. With a loss, though, they're back to Raven-watching (Baltimore holds the inside track to the No. 2 seed if it finishes with the same record as New England.)
It's a tricky time of year with a lot of hypotheticals, but the Patriots can vanquish them all with three straight wins to close out the season.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.
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