FOXBORO (CBS) — It didn’t take very long for whispers of the infamous 2009 playoff game against Baltimore to make their way around Gillette Stadium.
Allowing a 93-yard kick return, falling behind 3-0 early, losing Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead to injury, going three-and-out on the opening drive and punting on the first two possessions — home-field advantage was neutralized early on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, as the Patriots and their fans looked a bit stunned in the opening moments of their divisional playoff game with the Texans.
A lesser team would have folded, rolled over and packed up for next year. In fact, that’s exactly what the 2009 incarnation of the Patriots did in this very building, when a 7-0 deficit turned into a 14-0 deficit, which then turned into a 21-0 deficit.
Yet this year’s team proved it had that something that allows a team to regain its collective composure, and those early concerns were a distant memory by the time the Patriots finished off their 41-28 victory over the Texans.
“I’m happy for the players,” Bill Belichick said after the game. “I think they really earned it.”
The true test began on the first play of the game, when Danieal Manning caught Stephen Gostkowski’s opening kickoff six yards deep in his own end zone before breaking free for a 93-yard return. Devin McCourty tracked down Manning, preventing the Patriots from an immediate 7-0 hole, and then the defense dodged a bullet when James Casey let a potential touchdown pass slide right through his hands.
When the Patriots got the ball after Houston’s field goal, they went three-and-out in just over a minute, losing Woodhead to a thumb injury on the first offensive snap. The defense then got the ball back, but a diving attempt by Gronkowski left the superstar tight end in obvious pain. He wouldn’t play another snap the rest of the night (and he won’t for the rest of the year), but the Patriots marched forward without him.
After Gronkowski left, all the offense did was gain 439 yards and score 41 points. That’s simply something that not too many teams can do in the NFL.
“That team is proven to be battle-tested. They got a great team, and they’ve got a phenomenal quarterback and coach that’s seen it all,” Danieal Manning said from the losing locker room. “They found ways to win. That’s what good teams do.”
Brady finished the night with some of the best postseason numbers of his incredible career, but for much of the night, it was a three-man offensive show with Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Shane Vereen. Welker had 120 receiving yards by halftime, including a a 30-yard gain on a third-and-8 and a 47-yard reception down the left sideline that set up the Patriots’ second touchdown of the night. Welker, whose athleticism was questioned by Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips earlier in the week, finished with eight catches for 131 yards.
Hernandez stepped up in the absence of Gronkowski, catching six passes for 85 yards, and Vereen turned in his best game in a Patriots uniform. He ran for 41 yards and a touchdown on seven carries while catching five passes for 83 yards and two more scores.
“It was a huge growing up moment for him,” Brady said of Vereen.
The good feeling subsided late in the first half, though, when some questionable clock management and play calling from New England allowed the Texans to sneak in a long field goal before halftime. With the Patriots’ lead cut to 17-13 at the break, the offense took the ball to start the third quarter and drove 69 yards in 3:30, extending that lead to 11 points and delivering a stomach punch to a Texans team that was charged up just minutes earlier.
“The start of the second half was big,” said Texans linebacker Barrett Ruud. “The fact they had that quick score, that was tough. Every time we kind of got close, they had an answer for us. That was the biggest thing.”
Of course, it takes much more than offense to pull off a lopsided victory in the divisional round of the playoffs, and the defense did the dirty work necessary to make the fourth quarter a relatively stress-free environment for the Patriots’ sideline.
While Rob Ninkovich’s interception will deservedly stand out as the defensive play of the game, the sound tackling across the board prevented any extra gains, and the pass rush was decent enough to force Matt Schaub to make several poor passes.
“Last year when I was on this team, Vince [Wilfork] spoke about attitude and playing a certain way, especially once you get into the playoffs, and I think this team has carried that attitude over this year,” McCourty said. “I think guys have that attitude no matter what happens. If things go wrong, somebody returns a kick or something like that, we just want to hold guys out of the end zone. We want to make plays down there and just try to play great defense. We know if we can hold teams to three points, our offense will do the job and put seven on the board.”
As it turned out, that’s precisely what happened. Brady overcame his own issues after looking a bit shaky in the first half, ultimately trusting his dynamic play-makers to run free in open space and eventually throwing two perfect deep balls to Welker and Vereen.
“I think it’s been the mark of our team,” Brady said of the Patriots’ resiliency. “We’ve won 11 of 12. We were down 31-10 [vs. San Francisco] at home and battled back. I think we’re going to be in it. We have a lot of tough guys, mentally tough guys. Whatever happens, like what happened on the first play of the game, you’ve got to overcome it. We made some key plays when we needed to. It was a great effort.”
That 2009 team didn’t have the toughness or composure to fight back against the Ravens three years ago. Last year in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots barely eked out a victory. Next Sunday, with another Super Bowl trip on the line, they’ll have an opportunity to show the Ravens what this year’s team is made of.