Patriots win as expected, but sloppy performance should give everyone else confidence – Yahoo Sports

A better team might have beat the New England Patriots on Saturday night.

It could also be argued that the Patriots weren’t as motivated as you’d expect for a divisional round playoff game, because they prepared all week for an overmatched Houston Texans team. That’s fair. No matter how often the Patriots coaches presumably preached about how tough the Texans could be, the players knew going in they were overwhelming favorites.

And they played for most of a 34-16 win like they wanted to make it interesting for the prime-time television audience.

And when the winner of Sunday night’s Pittsburgh Steelers-Kansas City Chiefs game puts on the tape of Saturday night’s Patriots win, they should feel like they can go to Foxborough and win in the AFC championship game. The Patriots looked vulnerable, for a change.

The Patriots kept the Texans in the game for a long time. Houston had the ball early in the first quarter, down only one possession. Nobody expected a close game on Saturday night, but it was until the wheels came off for the Texans in the fourth quarter. Had Texans receiver Will Fuller caught a sure deep touchdown that was right in his hands late in the third quarter, it would have been even closer in the final quarter.

Tom Brady threw two interceptions in 12 regular-season games, and he threw two in the first three quarters Saturday night. He almost threw another pick early in the third quarter, when Michael Floyd hesitated on his slant route, but it was dropped by the Texans. Brady completed just 18 of 38 attempts and was good, not great like usual. Running back Dion Lewis, who scored three touchdowns, also had a fumble on a kickoff return that Houston turned into a touchdown.

New England never got its run game going. Houston had a creative defensive game plan, moving rushers Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney around, and the Patriots had a tough time protecting Brady. Even though the Patriots got what felt like an inevitable win – Brock Osweiler’s back-breaking interception deep in his own territory early in the fourth quarter, with the Texans trailing by just eight points, ended any suspense – it wasn’t a great performance for New England.

The Texans weren’t the right team to take advantage of a lackluster Patriots performance. Pittsburgh or Kansas City might be the team to do it, in next week’s AFC championship game.

Maybe it was a one-off performance by the Patriots, a bit rusty after a bye and sleepwalking through a game nobody figured the Texans could win. Perhaps by next week, Brady will carve up whichever defense he’s up against, LeGarrette Blount will be back to posing with the Minutemen after another touchdown, and Brady will extend his NFL record with a seventh trip to the Super Bowl. On Saturday night the Patriots reached their sixth straight conference championship game, an NFL record in the Super Bowl era, so there probably shouldn’t be too much alarm over one less-than-stellar playoff performance. And New England still won by 18 points.

But the Patriots, widely considered the favorite to win the Super Bowl as the postseason started, look beatable after Saturday night. And opponents who are much better than the Texans await them the rest of the way.

James White celebrates a touchdown in the Patriots' win over Houston. (AP)James White celebrates a touchdown in the Patriots' win over Houston. (AP)

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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