Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Optimistic, times twelve
So what better time than on this once-a-century date, 12-12-12, to present Patriots fans with a dozen reasons why they should feel good about the state of their football team following Monday night's 42-14 trouncing of the Texans?
1. Their response to the challenge. After the game, several of the Patriots made no secret that the team had heard the hype about the Texans over the eight days that preceded the contest, and it was plainly obvious that New England not only used it as motivation, but more importantly the Patriots were salivating for the opportunity to silence the noise. "We came into this game with a chip on our shoulders, everyone talking about the Houston Texans," Jerod Mayo said, and if Monday is an example of how they perform when motivated by a big test, they should be plenty dangerous come the postseason.
2. Mayo. He might've finished below his season average with seven tackles, but Monday might've been Mayo's best effort of the season. The linebacker got two licks in on Matt Schaub, was a consistent force in the run game where the Pats limited Arian Foster to just 46 yards on his 15 hauls - and was a true tone-setter for a defense that made the loudest statement of the night.
3. Vince Wilfork. J.J. Watt was being talked about all last week. Aldon Smith is sure to get much of the attention this week. But you might have a hard time convincing the inhabitants of Gillette Stadium that either of those young sack artists is a more valuable defensive lineman than the venerable veteran. Monday night Wilfork had a sack, a forced fumble, another tackle for loss and a pass defensed - but the stats never tell the full story of his impact. He simply couldn't be blocked Monday, and it's been that way for the better part of a month as Wilfork keeps making the case that he is a candidate for the NFL's defensive player of the year award.
4. New England's third-down success. Houston entered as the NFL's stingiest defense in third-down situations, but the Patriots converted 50 percent (6 of 12) of their opportunities on offense. Even more impressive, though, was the way New England's defense held Houston's second-ranked offense to just 29 percent (4 for 14) on third down. Wilfork was asked afterward if he believed his defense was championship caliber and answered without hesitation, "Absolutely." Play like that on third down and he might be right.
5. There was more to be had offensively. Maybe the most impressive thing about New England's 42-point explosion was that there could've been even more. The Patriots' five punts were their second-most since Week 3, they survived two fumbles in the red zone, and Wes Welker dropped four balls. "I feel like we left a lot of plays out there, for sure," said the receiver - yet his team still scored six offensive touchdowns.
6. Rob Gronkowski is still healing. When the All-Pro tight end went down with an injury, the Patriots were averaging 35.8 points per game. In the three games since Gronkowski broke his forearm, New England is averaging 38 points. Not since opening day have the Patriots played with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at full strength, yet the Pats have scored 97 more points than any other team this season. The thought of what they might do with both tight ends in the playoffs has to have opposing defenses cowering already.
7. Coaching. It has appeared over the past month that Bill Belichick has taken a more active role in the defense, and that has paid major dividends - not only in the results, but in terms of confidence. "We know if we do what we want - what Coach Belichick tells us coming into the week - we've got a good chance to play any team tough and to really take advantage of what he says," Devin McCourty said. "If we play that way, we can't predict the score, but we know we can really dominate games."
8. McCourty's play. When the team acquired Aqib Talib to take over as its top cornerback, it simultaneously committed to moving McCourty to safety, and so far that seems a natural fit. He has solidified the shakiest position on the roster, and not to be lost in the equation is the job Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington have done at cornerback. At last, everyone appears to be in the right position.
9. The rookies are improving. Now a starter, Dennard has become a steal of a seventh-round draft pick. Chandler Jones is back after battling an injury. Dont'a Hightower's play has vastly improved since he hit a low point against Buffalo. And Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner have been shuffled back to more appropriate places on the safety depth chart. All told, the Pats' 2012 draft class will be a significant part of any forthcoming success.
10. The dominance. A plus-198 for this season, the Patriots have now outscored their opponents by 1,132 points in the 93 regular-season games they've played since 2007 (2,929-1,797). That means their average result is a 12-point victory.
11. Important, impressive wins. If tiebreakers come in to play, the Patriots look good in the playoff picture. They have beaten three of the four other AFC teams with at least nine victories - hammering Houston and Indianapolis, and getting up big on Denver. But for a last-second loss at Baltimore, they've cleared asserted themselves as the conference's best of the best.
12. Tom Brady. After throwing for 296 yards Monday he's thrown for more yardage than Peyton Manning this season, and though he's thrown two fewer touchdowns he's also thrown six fewer interceptions. Once again, he looks as good as ever and from this view, as of 12-12-12, the NFL MVP is No. 12 himself.
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Dave D'Onofrio covers Boston sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @davedonofrio