Remember back in October when the Patriots were 3-3 and there were concerns that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick somehow weren't the same people they'd always been? Yeah, that was cut. New England has since won seven in a row, including a Monday night stomping over the Texans, previously thought to be the conference's best team.
In two months, the conversation has gone from "will this team make the playoffs?" to "can these guys be the No. 1 seed heading in the playoffs?" The former's now a certainty and the latter could be by Sunday evening.
As it stands, the Texans (11-2) still hold the No. 1 spot, which guarantees them a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. But if the Patriots (10-3) win out and Houston drops one of its last three games, New England would hold the tiebreaker (by virtue of Monday night's win). And while the Pats don't have an easy road -- they face the 49ers on Sunday night and then Jacksonville and Miami -- the Texans have some work to do, too. After hosting the Colts in Week 15, they play the Vikings and then play the Colts in the season finale.
Ultimately, it might not matter; New England and Houston appear to be going in opposite directions as the January approaches. If the playoffs started tomorrow, the Pats would still have a first-round bye and would face either No. 3 Denver (if they defeated No. 6 Pittsburgh) or the winner of No. 4 Baltimore and No. 5 Indianapolis.
New England beat the Broncos and Colts convincingly already this season, and they should've beaten the Ravens if not for a missed Stephen Gostkowski field goal (plus, like the Texans, the Ravens aren't playing nearly as well as they were early in the season).
The usually laconic Bill Belichick sounded like something other than a robot when talking about his 2012 squad.
"That's a good locker room in there right now,'' he said late Monday night (via the Boston Globe). "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 these guys really tried to play the game the way we need to play it. Houston is a good a football team, but we just did a few things better than they did tonight.''
Meanwhile, Texans coach Gary Kubiak sounded a lot like the previous victims on New England's schedule.
"That's the type of team they are,'' he said. "They make you look really bad. They're hurrying up and getting in a formation and if you're not on top of your stuff, No. 12 (Brady) is not going to miss it. He doesn't miss many, and he sure as hell didn't tonight. That's what it takes to get to where that team has been for a long time. They did it again tonight. Credit to them."
It's a familiar refrain, particularly this time of year.