FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- This won't be good enough next week for the New England Patriots, who played arguably their worst game of the season in Saturday night's 34-16 victory over the Houston Texans in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs.
That's the biggest takeaway from what unfolded at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots' three turnovers, uncharacteristic penalties and shaky pass protection from the interior of the offensive line created some anxious moments in a game many predicted would be a blowout but was instead close entering the fourth quarter. The Texans' defense deserves some credit for that, too.
"It doesn’t feel great because we worked pretty hard to play a lot better than we played," said quarterback Tom Brady, whose 47.4 completion percentage was the lowest of his playoff career. "I give them a lot of credit, but we’re going to have to play better on offense."
Turnovers can be the great equalizer in the NFL, and the Patriots are usually among the best in the league in that area. Their 11 giveaways during the regular season tied with the Atlanta Falcons for fewest in the NFL, and the total was the lowest for any team since the San Francisco 49ers had just 10 in the 2011 season.
Something to consider for next Sunday's AFC Championship Game: The Chiefs led the NFL during the regular season with 33 takeaways, and the Steelers matched the Patriots' total of 23.
"We didn't play particularly well but we hung in there," coach Bill Belichick said. "We had too many balls out and we're lucky we didn't lose more than we did. I don't think the coaching was all that good tonight, either. We're going to have to play better and coach better or there won't be much left in our season."
This isn't to say it was all bad for the Patriots on Saturday night. Running back Dion Lewis did something no player has ever done in NFL playoff history: He scored a touchdown via rush, reception and kickoff return. He was magnificent. And the defense rose when it had to, with cornerback Logan Ryan one of its standout performers.
But as Brady said in the days leading up to Saturday night's game, Belichick's message to players is often simple: "It's not who you play, it's how you play."
The Patriots didn't play their best game Saturday night, serving up a reminder that even in a game when they are heavy favorites, things seldom come easy.
They'll have to be better next Sunday.