FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Regardless of what the NFL standings show, it’s now very obvious that the road to the AFC championship goes through the defending conference champions.

Yes, there are still three games remaining in the regular season, and the Houston Texans — everyone’s sexy pick to make it to the Super Bowl — may yet end up with the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

But New England’s 42-14 dismantling of the Texans Monday night at Gillette Stadium showed that, no matter who ends up with the top seed, the surging Patriots are still the team to beat.

In winning their seventh consecutive game, the Patriots made the Texans look like some not-ready-for-prime-time players. Tom Brady threw four TD passes for the 18th time in his career (passing Johnny Unitas on the all-time list) and Vince Wilfork dominated whoever was in front of him. The defense held Houston to 323 yards — 56 less than the Texans average.

“That’s a good locker room in there now,” Coach Bill Belichick said minutes after the game. “They feel good about the way they played and they should.

“We played the way we need to play.”

It was 21-0 less than 20 minutes into the game, and the fans who tailgated through heavy rain were dancing deliriously.

Brady showed why he’s still among the best big-game quarterbacks in the business, dissecting what was the sixth-best defense in the NFL with precision passes and quick decisions. He completed 21 of 35 passes for 296 yards with no interceptions.

He got everyone involved, even Brandon Lloyd (the season-long deep-pass disappointment) and Donte Stallworth (signed last Tuesday).

Lloyd caught a 37-yard touchdown pass from Brady with 2:49 left in the first quarter, the result of a brilliant fake by Brady into the belly of Stevan Ridley, who drew everyone his way — especially the defensive back who was supposed to be covering Lloyd.

Lloyd was so wide open that all Brady had to do was drop the pass into his arms, which he did.

In the third quarter, Brady found Stallworth for a 63-yard touchdown pass that made it 28-0.

How much did Brady want this one? After running 6 yards for a first down on the last play of the third quarter, he got up and gave a fiery fist pump, igniting the crowd, which responded with chants of, “MVP, MVP.”

“I was pretty fired up at that point,” said Brady. “That was a big moment in the game.”

Wilfork, meanwhile, was a beast. He tackled Houston’s Arian Foster for a 1-yard loss while on the ground; swatted a Matt Schaub pass into the ground; and busted up right tackle Duane Brown to stuff Foster for another loss.

Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.

The Patriots made them all Monday night.

If a message was to be sent, the Patriots wrote it in capital letters.

“We came in with a little chip on our shoulders,” said linebacker Jerod Mayo. “Everyone was talking about the Houston Texans.”

Houston, of course, can still end up as the AFC’s No. 1 seed, but they have a tougher remaining schedule than the Patriots.

The Texans play upstart Indianapolis twice in the final three weeks, next week at Houston and to end the season at Indy. In between, they have the Vikings at home. Win all three, and the Texans are the top seed and at home throughout the playoffs. Lose one, and it opens the door for New England, or even Denver, which has a huge game at Baltimore next Sunday.

The Patriots play San Francisco here on Sunday night. If they win that one, it’s likely they’ll close the regular season with a 13-3 mark, with a road game at Jacksonville and a season-ender at home against Miami.

While the Patriots never look too far ahead, they know they have something special here. They have won 20 consecutive home games in December.

“We just take it one game at a time,” said Mayo. “But when you go out there and perform the way we did, I think coming to Foxborough is going to be a tough play for anyone to play.”


Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

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Twitter: MikeLowePPH