FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – In the full deck that is the NFL, Bill Belichick is the Joker and Tom Brady is the Ace of Spades.
No NFL contender has this level of elite coaching and elite quarterbacking on the same team. That is what separates the New England Patriots and makes them the new Super Bowl favorites in this topsy-turvy season.
Can you reasonably make a case for anyone else after New England's resounding, 42-14, blowout victory over the Houston Texans? The Patriots (10-3) not only pounded the rugged Texans, but made a strong statement on national television.
The Houston team many thought was the Super Bowl favorite looked ordinary in Gillette Stadium. Houston (11-2) is still a very good team, but you have to knock the Texans down a peg or two under New England after this performance.
What about the Denver Broncos (10-3)? This is the same team New England beat in Week 5 by a double-digit margin. The Baltimore Ravens (9-4) have lost two straight and just fired their offensive coordinator.
If there's anyone better than New England in the NFC, I'd like to see it.
Call me when the sheepish Atlanta Falcons (11-2) win a playoff game. And not even the New York Giants, New England's kryptonite, is good enough to beat this year's version of the Patriots, who have won seven straight games.
The Green Bay Packers (9-4) and San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1), next week's opponent, are probably the biggest threats in the opposite conference. But of all the Super Bowl contenders, New England clearly is playing with the fullest deck.
"If we just keep improving, we know we can be where we want to be at the end of the season," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said confidently. "If we do what Coach Belichick tells us during the week, we have a chance to play any team tough and to really take advantage of what he says. If we play that way, you can’t predict the score, but we can really dominate games."
Belichick and Brady drew up another masterpiece Monday.
Thanks to Belichick, New England's defensive scheme shut down Houston's offense for nearly three quarters. Texans Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster was held to just 46 yards rushing on 3.1 yards per carry, and quarterback Matt Schaub (232 yards, one interception) looked lost against New England’s mix of zone and blitz looks.
Brady did his part on offense with 296 yards and four touchdowns. He picked apart Houston's secondary, and the Patriots' fast tempo kept the Texans' vaunted pass rush at bay. Houston had no answer for Brady, who shined once again in a big game. This is the type of performance that should catapult Brady to the very top of the MVP race, especially considering he holds a head-to-head win over Peyton Manning, his closest competitor.
"It was a big game because they were 11-1, leading the AFC and we had to see where we’re at, see where we match up against the better teams in the league," Brady said.
Not only do the Patriots have the Joker and Ace of Spades, New England also have a few veteran kings (receiver Wes Welker and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork), a couple young jacks (tight end Aaron Hernandez, tailback Stevan Ridley) and a trump card (Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski) they're saving for the right time. New England has other high cards at their disposal, such as receiver Brandon Lloyd and linebackers Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich. All except Gronkowski contributed to the win.
If the Patriots have all these cards in the deck, what's left for their opponents?
The Texans were terribly overmatched from start to finish. New England jumped out to a 28-0 lead and the Texans folded.
"We got our tails kicked," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said candidly.
"We just got out-played in all aspects of the game." Texans tailback Foster added. "We feel we’re a better team than that."
Maybe the gap is that wide between the Patriots and everyone else. New England is coming together at the right time and will be a tough matchup for anyone to slow down.
This is a familiar pattern for the Patriots. New England won its 13th consecutive December game and improved to 23-1 at home in December since 2001. That has catapulted the Patriots to five Super Bowl appearances -- and three championships -- in that span.
"We understood that this wasn't the end of the season," McCourty said of beating Houston. "This wasn't going to decide anything. We still have a tough game coming in next Sunday night [against San Francisco]. ... This season is far from over."
McCourty's words ring true. But if you had to hedge your bets on one team right now, it would be silly to pick against the Patriots.