Patriots approach remains the same vs. Texans


Patriots approach remains the same vs. Texans

FOXBORO -- It sounded as though the Patriots had nothing to lose. Vince Wilfork stepped in front of his locker, shared a belly laugh with the reporters huddled around him, and wasted no time when asked about the importance of Monday night's game against the Texans.

"They're the best team in the NFL," Wilfork said, "so it's not a big deal for us."

It sounded as though the pressure was on Houston to maintain its standing as the top team in the AFC, that it was just another game for the Patriots.

But when the 11-1 Texans visit Gillette Stadium, it won't be simply the latest game on the schedule for New England. It will be a chance to gauge.

The Patriots have played just one team (Indianapolis) in the last six weeks with a realistic shot to make the playoffs. In that time, their defense has appeared to make marked improvements, especially in its ability to create turnovers, while the offense has proven to be capable of withstanding injuries to key players, like Rob Gronkowski and Logan Mankins.
But how good are they, really? Monday could provide an answer as the Texans will be New England's best test in almost two months. They may be the best team that Bill Belichick's bunch faces all season.

Still, the Patriots say, they'll handle it like any old week.

"Our biggest thing is to treat it like another game," said Patriots guard Donald Thomas. "We understand what's at stake, but we have to go out there and prepare each week just like we do in the past weeks that we've done. This week is like any other. We have to go out there and execute."

It's a tact that will keep the Patriots from becoming at all psyched out or distracted by the time ESPN's Jon Gruden and Mike Tirico enter the broadcast booth. But the reality is that this game may well reveal more about their team than any of their previous 12 regular-season matchups. Will Houston's talent -- the Texans rank fourth in total offense and sixth in total defense -- provide a clear picture of New England's warts? Or will the Patriots defense prove that it's up to the task against elite teams? That their banged-up offense can survive an upper-echelon 'D'?

The Texans, on the other hand, appear to be the ones without much to lose. They've established themselves as one of the best in the AFC -- if not the best, as Wilfork knighted them. A loss to another one of the AFC's best, on the road, shouldn't crush their confidence. They would remain the top seed in the conference, and depending on how the rest of the regular season shakes out, they could have a chance for a rematch with New England, in the playoffs, at home.

Texans coach Gary Kubiak was asked on Thursday if he sees Monday night's game as a measuring stick for his team. 

"I really dont," he said. "First off, every game is big here coming down the stretch. Were in position, just like the Patriots are, to kind of control our own destiny moving forward . . . Were going to play in a lot of big games, and coming into New England, obviously thats a big, big game. Were really trying just to stay focused on our football, trying to improve. The key once you get there is how youre playing. It doesnt matter who you play or where you play, you have to be playing good football when you get to the playoffs. Ive learned that through my years. Were really just trying to stay focused on us, trying to get some guys back healthy. We know well have to play extremely well this weekend. We see every week as a big game, and obviously in December theyre all huge."

For Houston, this game is important, but it may not be much more important than any other at this time of year. For New England, Monday night will serve as a legitimate litmus test.

Though not all Patriots were willing to admit it, one did.

"I think for us as a team, theres not really much more you could ask for than that," quarterback Tom Brady said Wednesday. "To play Monday Night Football in December against one of the best teams in the NFL and see what were capable of."

Haggerty: Subban looking more like a 1st-round bust than NHL goalie

Haggerty: Subban looking more like a 1st-round bust than NHL goalie

BOSTON, Mass – Malcolm Subban says that he believes that he can still be a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL.

While that’s admirable on some level for the sheer, brazen self-confidence involved in saying this after getting yanked from a 5-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild at TD Garden, pretty much all of the evidence points out the contrary. Nearly two years after getting pulled from his NHL debut in against the St. Louis Blues after giving up three goals on six shots, Subban was pulled from Tuesday night’s appearance after giving up three goals on eight second period shots with the Bruins desperately in need of a quality start in goal.

He maintained a defiantly confident tone after another humbling NHL effort against Minnesota, and that’s a testament to the maturity and mental toughness of the person behind the goalie mask.

“It sucks. Obviously, I’m just trying to finish the game, let alone win one. Obviously it sucks, but what can you do now, right?” said Subban, who has now allowed six goals on 22 career shots faced in two starts. “Obviously I want to be a number one goaltender in the league. I was a high pick for a reason. I have the potential, and I just have to show it. Obviously I haven’t done that so far yet, but I think I’m getting closer to it. Honestly, I think I can do it right now. I just got to show it. Obviously, I didn’t [do it] today, but tomorrow’s a new day.”

Given the stunningly bad quality of his two NHL starts combined with a thoroughly pedestrian body of work at the AHL level over the last three years, there is literally zero tangible evidence Subban is tracking to be a franchise goaltender. Instead he’s the emergency goaltender called on by the Bruins only after Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin have both been shelved by injuries, and he’s now flunked the two pop quizzes when the NHL team needed him to come through.

Meanwhile, a sizeable selection of goaltenders taken after him in the 2012 NHL Draft class have already proven their NHL worth and broken through at the elite level: Matt Murray, Frederik Anderson, Connor Hellebuyck and Joonas Korpisalo.

Subban was hoping all along to break through this season in Boston, but things went south on him quickly with a Bruins team not playing well in front of him. The first goal was a fluttering Charlie Coyle shot that trickled between his glove hand and the top of his leg pad. The third goal was a softie low and to the glove side, power play strike authored by Ryan Suter. It added up to poor goaltending and shoddy defense, but it also added up to a Bruins goaltender that didn’t even give his hockey club a chance to win.

“It could be a combination of both. There are some goals – I’m not going to lie – there are some goals that we thought our goaltenders should have had. But I’m not here to talk about a goaltender who’s in one of his first few games because he let in a couple of bad goals,” said Julien. “We were terrible in front of him and we weren’t any better, and that’s the big picture. That’s more important.

“I don’t care who’s in net. I think when you have some injuries you need to be better in those situations and we weren’t good enough tonight. It doesn’t matter if Tuukka [Rask] is in net and we had injuries up front, or we’re lacking players here or there. You’ve got to let the system take care of the game. If you play it the right way, you have a chance to win. When you don’t, you don’t. That’s what happened [against Minnesota].”

There’s no question the defense in front of Subban wasn’t nearly good enough, and Adam McQuaid and Torey Krug in particular struggled to lock things down in the defensive zone. The wide open shots from the slot - like the Chris Stewart score in the second period that arrived 12 seconds after Minnesota’s opening goal - are indicative of a hockey club that’s not sticking to the game plan once things start to get a little wonky.

But this is about a player in Subban that should be entering the NHL stage of his career after being a first round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, and anybody would be hard-pressed to see him as an NHL goalie after failing in each of his first two NHL starts. Combine that with the lack of dominance at the AHL level over the last three years, and there’s a better chance that Subban will be a major first round bust for the Bruins rather than suddenly develop into a late-blooming No. 1 goaltender in Boston.

The scary part is that Subban and fellow young netminder Zane McIntyre are all the Bruins have for Wednesday night’s game at Madison Square Garden, and perhaps longer than that if Rask can’t make rapid progress with his lower body injury.

Maybe Subban can be a bit better than he’s shown thus far, and the four goals allowed to Minnesota were not all his fault. The bottom line, however, is that Subban should be up for doing this job right now. Tuesday was a big chance for the young goalie to make a statement that he was ready for it.

Instead he looked like the same goalie that’s been pulled from two of his first four AHL starts this season, and plays like a goaltender that’s never going to truly be ready for the call in Boston.