FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- THE STANDINGS still say the Texans are the top dogs in the AFC, and since losing two of the season's first three games - one of which was to the Ravens - the Patriots' primary task has been digging out from those early failures, far more than trying to establish their supremacy.
But it's December now. And apparently the reigning champs want to remind everyone that to win this conference a team is going to have to go through them.
It was a statement made loud and clear on Monday night, when Tom Brady found Aaron Hernandez for two of his four touchdown passes and New England laid a 42-14 whipping on the AFC-leading Texans, and again took advantage of the national stage to send a message.
Less than three weeks after throttling the Jets on Thanksgiving, the Pats stepped under the spotlight and delivered a performance that had to make everyone take notice, showing a knack for the big moment and its opportunities that bodes well for what lies ahead - when everyone is watching and every game means more than the next.
With the win, the Patriots remained in control of their own destiny as far as a first-round playoff bye is concerned, and made significantly more realistic the possibility of entering the postseason as the AFC's No. 1 seed.
By virtue of Baltimore's loss to Washington on Sunday, the Patriots entered Monday in a position where they'll skip wild-card weekend if they finish the regular season without losing again. And they exited Monday needing only one more Houston loss to give them the same opportunity for the top spot in the conference.
For now the Texans still control that contest, but they'll face the formidable Colts twice in the season's final three weeks, and if they drop either of those games the Patriots may get their chance to pounce. New England has a tough test coming Sunday against the 49ers, though the tiebreakers now favor the 10-3 Patriots in a big way thanks to head-to-head wins over both of the AFC teams with records as good as or better than theirs - Denver (10-3) and Houston (11-2).
And if there was any question about how big the latter of those was, it was answered on the final play of the third quarter, when Brady picked up a first down with a 6-yard scamper away from trouble, and got up with a sequence of excitedly emotional fist pumps that got the crowd fired up.
"MVP! MVP!" responded the sellout crowd of 68,756.
Finishing 21-of-35 for 296 yards, Brady certainly had an MVP look to him Monday, particularly early, with the first 19 minutes of action providing the Patriots exactly the start they sought as New England opened up a 21-0 advantage - and in the process made Houston look silly on two of its three scores.
The first strike was fairly routine, as the Pats jumped on top with a 7-yard connection from Brady to Hernandez that was set up by Wes Welker's 31-yard punt return. But after Devin McCourty thwarted the Texans' next possession with an interception at the goal line, New England capped its next series by getting Houston's secondary to bite badly on a play-action fake that left Brandon Lloyd wide open for a 37-yard score.
Then the Texans blatantly forgot to cover Hernandez on the next drive, Brady goosing his center to hurry the snap when he noticed, then slinging the ball to the flank for an easy 4-yard touchdown.
The three-score deficit provoked some desperation within the Texans, who attempted to convert fourth-and-5 from inside the Patriots' 40 on each of the next two possessions - but both times failed on passes intended for Kevin Walter.
New England couldn't do anything with those drives, and eventually punted on four straight possessions - they'd punted just four times in a game only once since Week 3 - but a defense led by tone-setters Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork continued to do its part by keeping the Texans from mounting any semblance of a comeback. And so when the offense did get back in gear, it was still in position to stretch the lead again.
Perhaps given Houston's penchant for batting passes at the line of scrimmage, and the injuries that have depleted the Texans' secondary, Brady had unsuccessfully been trying throughout the night to land a touch pass lobbed over the top. But on third-and-10 from his own 37 he finally did, finding Donte Stallworth in stride - and the recently reacquired receiver did the rest, outracing a pair of defenders before diving into the end zone for a 63-yard score. And a 28-0 lead.
It was the fourth touchdown toss of the day for Brady, his 18th four-TD game, moving him ahead of Johnny Unitas for fourth-most in NFL history, and though the Texans finally answered with Arian Foster's 1-yard plunge on the next series, what happened next let Houston know for sure that this wasn't going to be its night.
After spinning his way inside the 15, Danny Woodhead had the ball jarred from his hands by Texan J.J. Watt, though the fumble couldn't have been more fortuitous for the Patriots, as it flew forward to the end zone, where Lloyd fell on it for his second score of the game. That made it 35-7, and after Stevan Ridley scored on a 14-yard run, it was time for TJ Yates (who scored on a late sneak) and Ryan Mallett to each take his turn at quarterback.
It was time for the Patriots to start looking forward to the 49ers.
And to their next chance to shine in the national spotlight.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.