FOXBORO -- There were a lot of happy guys in the Patriots locker room Sunday night.
The team's 41-28 win over Houston in the Divisional Playoff seemed to loosen lips. Guys talked with reporters a little longer, laughed a little more. There was a general looseness about the locker room.
No, no -- there's no place here for a 'No kidding!' comment because this is New England, place where football players do not emote joy unless they're at the Super Bowl.
Well, they're certainly getting closer, aren't they?
Next weekend the Patriots will play Baltimore in the AFC Championship. The game is 2012's last between them and a trip to New Orleans for Super Sunday.
Let's digest the Texans first, though.
Quarterback Tom Brady on passing Joe Montana for most postseason wins in NFL history:
TB: "Well, I hope I'm around for a few more years. I know this was an important win for our team and that's always the number one goal for me."
You didn't expect Brady to beat his chest, did you? It might mean the world that he surpassed his childhood idol. The thought might have inspired a small, secret smile while he drove home from Gillette Stadium. Brady's just not going to talk about it -- not now. The Baltimore Ravens are waiting anxiously on the other end of this week. There's still a Super Bowl to shoot for.
Brady is all business right now.
On seeming subdued after the big win:
TB: "I'm tired, man. There was a lot of emotional energy spent. It's a big build up to the week and we had four days of practice and you're up and you're down, you're up and you're down. I'm tired. I'm ready to go home."
There's a simple reason why I liked this quote: Sincerity. Brady is so good at saying the right thing, at being diplomatic or reserved, that it's refreshing when he sounds like a human being.
Hey! The quarterback who passed Joe Montana for the most playoff wins in NFL history is tired! Suddenly, you remember that he has a newborn at home, that he's 35-years old, that game days are physically and mentally punishing.
Running back Shane Vereen on whether or not expected to play so much:
SV: "I don't come into the game knowing how much anyone is going to play. I come into the game ready to go and if my number is called I do my best for the team.
Brandon Bolden said the same thing after New England's September 30 game against the Bills. The rookie had seven carries for 15 yards in his first three games before blowing up 137 yards on 16 carries in Buffalo's face.
But what impresses me about this running back corps isn't just the fact that anyone can shoulder the load at any time. I'm thinking about how supportive they are of each other.
Stevan Ridley, New England's No. 1 back, spent last week obsessing over ball security. Ridley is a talented back, but sometimes suffers from fumblitis (four fumbles, two lost this season).
Ridley finished with 82 rushing yards on 15 carries to Vereen's 41 on seven runs, but he played second fiddle to Vereen in the first half. Did he stew on the bench? Nope. I distinctly remember seeing the pair laughing together after Vereen ran in an 8-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
There are no divas in that group and I don't doubt it fosters success.
Receiver Wes Welker on if there's a silver lining in that players stepped up when Rob Gronkowski missed time earlier in the season:
WW: "I think we've shown that guys can step up and play that role. Everybody kind of upped their game and knows that we've got to step up."
Here are some Gronk-related numbers, courtesy of SI's Peter King:
Patriots in 11 regular season games with Gronkowski: 35 points, 433 yards per game.
Patriots in five regular season games without Gronkowski: 34 points, 417 yards per game.
The point: This is not 2011. When Rob Gronkowski sprained his ankle in last season's AFC Championship, the game plan changed. New England, for the first time in two years, had to figure out how to live without its super tight end.
Of course, Brady and the rest would prefer to have Gronkowski available. Of course. But entering Sunday's game against Baltimore, they have enough experience to know how to make the machine go without him.
Texans safety Danieal Manning on what it means to him to have a big day in the kick return game:
DM: "Right now it doesn't mean anything. Maybe later it will, but right now it doesn't mean crap."
It should mean a lot to the Patriots.
New England allowed 216 yards on Manning's four kickoff returns. That's 54.0 per return. Houston averaged a 23rd-ranked 21.7 yards in the regular season.
Know what team was best in the NFL? Baltimore. The Ravens gouged opponents for 27.3 yards per kickoff return. They also brought in two for touchdowns, another leauge-high. Deonte Thompson is wily. He got 81 yards on three kickoffs when Baltimore and New England last met in September.
Special teams will have to tighten up before Sunday's conference championship game.
Teans defensive end J.J. Watt on the most frustrating aspect of the game:
JW: "Losing, I can't stand it. I can't stand any aspect of it. The taste in your mouth is terrible. We lost, we are going home, and we are not moving on. Congratulations to the Patriots and they deserve all the credit. It's frustrating."
Yet another glimpse at NFL humanity.
J.J. Watt was a defensive giant this year. His 20.5 sacks led the league. He was dynamic, disruptive, and sometimes impossible to pin down. Much was made of the Patriots bringing out rackets to simulate 'J.J. Swatt's' reach and bother Brady. Rackets! Mere mortal practice squad players were not enough on their own.
But strip away the Thor-glory and you've got another guy who hates to lose. He was sick over it. All athletes probably feel that way, it's just good to hear. You want to think Watt could win the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year award, but bury it in a closet because it reminds him of what Houston didn't win.
Love of the game.
Texans quarterback Matt Schaub on if his third quarter interception was one of those, "Oh no" moments:
MS: "Yeah, when they ultimately get the ball, that's definitely an, 'Oh no' moment. You want to get your guy a chance to make a play."
Tough question for Schaub. How is he supposed to answer? 'Actually, I was excited when I threw the interception. I like to give defensive backs opportunities to feel good about themselves.'
Schaub completed 34-of-51 passes for 343 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception Sunday night.
My colleague Danny Picard best summed up the performance: "But those two touchdown passes came way too late, the timing of the interception was devastating, and at the end of the day, he didn't make as many plays as Tom Brady."
You know what Not Good Enough does in the playoffs? It forces your coach to defend you.
Texans head coach Gary Kubiak on what makes him believe Schaub can be great if he's not at this stage at his career:
GK: "I don't have any doubt if that's what you're asking me. This guy's won a lot of football games. So if you're asking about our quarterback, I've got a ton of confidence in him. I think he's one of the top quarterbacks in football. He's had his team in great position for the last two years. He was a big part of last year. You don't get over that hump unless you're willing to keep going back there and keep putting yourself in that position. It's very, very difficult. I do not take anything for granted, where we are tonight. Because it's hard to get there.
"But I believe in our quarterback whole-heartedly, and my point is that we are going to continue to push him to a new level as a player. And that's all of us. He's definitely the one leading the way."
Schaub is 31-years old. He's been in the league since 2004 and has been a starting quarterback since 2007.
His quarterback record (team record in games he started) is 44-38-0. He's been voted to the Pro Bowl twice (2009 and 2012), ranked in the Top 10 for passer rating five times, ranked in the Top 6 for passes completed per game four times, and ranked in the Top 10 for yards per pass completion five times.
It's not foolish for Kubiak to say his quarterback is a really good one. The trouble is, big losses can corrode a legacy to Not Good Enough. After too many, nobody will care what the coach says.