FOXBOROUGH, Mass. —
Tom Brady walked into his weekly news conference and glanced at the unusually large media crowd.
"Packed house,'' he said with a smile. "Big game.''
It's about time.
On Monday night, the New England Patriots face the Houston Texans, their toughest opponent in a season in which they've rolled over mediocre teams. They're 9-3 with seven wins against teams with losing records.
The Texans (11-1) are a different animal.
"They're a great football team,'' Brady said Wednesday, "so any time you play the best, you want to see how you match up.''
The Patriots did rout the Indianapolis Colts 59-24 on Nov. 18. And the Colts are 8-4 with a chance to gain a wild-card berth, although they must play the Texans in two of their last three games. The Patriots also beat the Denver Broncos (9-3) in the fifth game of the year, 31-21.
But, overall, they're just 2-2 against teams with winning records.
So, this game is ultra-significant - a Monday night national audience, the top team in the AFC and a need to avoid falling three games out of the conference lead - to a franchise that takes pride in first-round byes and home games in the postseason.
"This is a big game for us, a game where we're able to make up some ground that we lost early in the season,'' linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "It's hard to win any game in the NFL. I would be lying if I said we weren't pumped for the game. But, at the same time, we're approaching this like any other.''
They know it does no good to put pressure on themselves by attaching extra importance to the game.
"Every week is different in the game of football,'' safety Steve Gregory said. "You see upsets, you see things like that. So, in order to win a football game in the NFL, you have to bring your `A' game every week.''
Buffalo and Miami are just 5-7, but were both competitive in their most recent games against the Patriots. New England held on for a 37-31 win over the Bills with a last-minute interception in the end zone by Devin McCourty Nov. 11. And last week, the Patriots squeezed past the Dolphins, 23-16, despite gaining their fewest yards of the season.
And don't forget: The Patriots even lost to Arizona, 20-18, in the season's second game. The scuffling Cardinals (4-8) have lost their last eight games.
But coach Bill Belichick doesn't worry much about an opponent's record. Even when it's 11-1.
"We know Houston is a good team,'' he said. "Whatever their record is, if it was 12-0, 11-1, 9-3, whatever, we know they're a good team. It doesn't really matter what happened against some other team they might have played, whether they won or lost. It's how we match up against them this week and how we do against them.
"We play good players, good coaches, good teams every week. These guys, they've had a great season. I can see why their record is what it is.''
The Texans have a well-balanced offense with quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson. Defensive end J.J. Watt is second in the league with 15 1/2 sacks. At 6-feet-5, he has a knack for batting down passes, as well.
"Coach Belichick likes to bring guys with racquetball paddles and stick those up in the air,'' Brady said, as the Patriots prepare for Watt and Co. "I'm sure there will be a whole bunch of those there this week, which doesn't always make me very happy, but that's probably a good way to prepare for it.''
Those paddles may not be all Belichick will bring out.
"Maybe brooms, get it a little longer,'' the coach said. "(They) knock down a lot of balls. It's not just knocked-down balls, it's tipped balls for interceptions and everything else. They're a very disruptive front.
"They're tough to handle.''
If the Patriots can overcome that, and win, they'll be one game closer to becoming the AFC's top seed. They had that label last season as well, and landed in the Super Bowl.
"You always want to play against the best,'' cornerback Aqib Talib said. "We get to play one of the best teams in the AFC, so I'm looking forward to it.''