FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - The New England Patriots seem to show up around this time of the year every year. The tree is being installed in the living room, ornaments up from the basement, and the credit card already has been rolled more than a few times at the neighborhood mega-mall, and Fox News has begun to worry about The War on Christmas and, ding-dong, the children of Bill Belichick are back at the front door again.
The month is December. Ding-dong. Did anybody here put in an order for the best team in football?
"Isn't the Christmas season a time when you're supposed to feel good?" guard Logan Mankins asked late last night after the Patriots manhandled the previous best team in football, the Houston Texans, 42-14 at Gillette Stadium. "Maybe that's what we're doing."
In the pile of giddy statistics the Pats collected in this most pleasant of football evenings - 59 degrees, not much wind, not much opposition - the most impressive were the December numbers. Since Gillette was opened in 2002, the home team has recorded a 21-1 record in the month. The last 20 of those wins have been in a row. Overall, since the 2001 season the Pats have a 43-5 record in December. They have won 13 in a row.
This has become a fine New England closing tradition. Trouble may come earlier in the season, hard times and dropped footballs, but life is an Advent calendar in December filled with happy surprises to be opened day after day, week after week. Nobody in the NFL feels, acts or plays better than the Patriots at this time of the year.
"It's always good to win these games, certainly Monday night - we've already played in a lot of big games here - but Monday night in December is an important one for us," quarterback Tom Brady said. "We came out ready to go."
The Texans, 11-1 when they arrived, the best record in football, simply were steam-rolled. They were behind, 7-0, 14-0, then 21-0 after the Patriots' first three possessions of the game. This was supposed to be the test for the young Texans of how much and how well they had grown. The test was done with 11 minutes and one second left in the first half. Clickers were clicking across half of America in search of a good reality show about strange and unlikable people. The other half of the country had gone to bed.
"We knew how important this game was to us," Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson said, after proclaiming this "the biggest game in franchise history" during the week. "It was a good ass whipping and that is pretty much it."
"We just got out-played in all aspects of the game," Houston running back Arian Foster said. "We didn't play well. I didn't play well. It's hard to come back from a deficit when you are playing a team of that caliber."
The Patriots, 4-3 after the first seven weeks of the season, porous on defense, questions everywhere, now have won seven games in a row, and a quick look in the rear view mirror brings the reminder that those three losses were by a total of four points. Swing those four points around and this would be an unbeaten football team. Adjustments have been made. Tinkering has been done. This is what the finished product was supposed to look like.
Syncopation is mixed with fine whistling. Every toy is a happy toy in the Belichick workshop in December.
"That's a good locker room in there right now," the coach said with unusual press conference enthusiasm. "Those guys feel real good about the way they played, and they should. The players really did a heck of a job tonight, all the way across the board. We got good contributions from all three phases. I thought those guys really tried to play the game the way we need to play it."
Brady was clockwork perfect in running the offense against a good Houston defense. He threw four touchdown passes, every one of them to wide-open receivers. He finished 21for 35 for 296 yards, no interceptions. A message rolled across the scoreboard at one point that said he had collected 17 touchdown passes against one interception in all of the Monday Night Football games he has played at Gillette.
December. Monday night. He was the happiest toy of all, back in another stretch drive. He loved the way it felt. He loved the way everything is coming together at the end, just the way it's supposed to happen on the plans laid out on the floor at the beginning of the season.
"I've been around some great teams and I can see the attitude of great teams," he said. "I can see the work ethic of great teams and that's what I try to encourage. That's part of my role as a leader, as a captain, as a quarterback. I try to show up every day and encourage the younger players who haven't been part of those teams, so hopefully we don't have to go through growing pains. They can listen and say, 'Wow, Tom, you are right. You're not just screaming at me for no reason.'"
A sign of the Patriots' efficiency was the final 63-yard touchdown pass to Donte' Stallworth, the 10-year veteran receiver, signed and brought back to the roster only last week. True, Stallworth had played a last regular-season game with the Pats back in 2007. True, he also had played during training camp before he was released this year. He knew a bit about the system. Still, big game, Monday night against the Texans, there he was, right away, inserted into the lineup in place of injured Julian Edelman, fired up, sent on a post pattern. There he was, catching a perfect ball from Brady as if they had practiced all year together, dipping and eluding a tackler and motoring to the end zone with his eyes on the scoreboard at the south end of the stadium.
I was looking to see if anyone was coming after me," he said. "A lot of guys in the league do that, check the scoreboard while they're running."
You're watching yourself making moves?
It must be like you're in the middle of some video game.
"That's exactly what it's like," Stallworth said. "Like being inside a video game."
The video game on defense looked just as good. The troubled group from those first seven games looked troubled no more. The pre-game buzz was about the return of J.J. Watt of the Texans, lately called the best defensive lineman in the sport. The buzz after the game was about Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork. He sacked Houston quarterback Matt Schaub for a 20-yard loss, forced a fumble, knocked down a pass, helped stuff Arian Foster into a 46-yard night on 15 carries and instilled great confidence in his defensive teammates.
"Vince says, 'you just worry about the pass defense, I'll take care of the running game," Pats safety Devin McCourty said. "And whatever Vince tells us, that's what we do. Because Vince knows everything."
"I don't care anything about stats, about rankings," Wilfork said, done for the night, a soft black hat on his head, a fat gold chain around his neck. "All I care about his winning. You know? Winning is what makes me happy."
"Are you happy right now?" he was asked.
"I'm very happy," the big man said.
In a twist on the calendar, with an early game in the month this year, a late game at the end, the 2-0 December Pats still have three games left on their December schedule this year. Ding-dong. Here they are.