The New England Patriots entered Week 3 beset by injuries. The team was on its third-string quarterback. Its star tight end had yet to take the field. Head coach Bill Belichick had only four days to get a rookie quarterback ready to face an undefeated opponent and the league's best defensive player.
The Patriots didn't just beat the Houston Texans on Thursday night to move to 3-0 on the season. They throttled them 27-0. And in doing so, the Pats sent a message to the rest of the AFC.
That message? "We're the best team in the league—and we'll beat you senseless with one hand tied behind our backs."
That's essentially what the Patriots did. With Tom Brady serving a four-game suspension and backup Jimmy Garoppolo out with a sprained shoulder, Jacoby Brissett became the first rookie quarterback to start a game for the Patriots since Drew Bledsoe in 1993.
Brissett's first NFL start was far from the Patriots' only problem. Like Brady, defensive end Rob Ninkovich is also suspended. Tailback Dion Lewis has yet to take the field this season after knee surgery. Star tight end Rob Gronkowski made his 2016 debut against the Texans, but he was clearly not himself and a complete non-factor in the game.
None of that mattered even a little bit.
With Brissett making his first start, it was assumed the Patriots would lean heavily on LeGarrette Blount and their run game. Actually, it was the run game that did the leaning—all over Houston's defense.
New England rolled for 185 yards on the ground against a Texans defense that entered Week 3 ranked 12th in the NFL in run defense, allowing 96 yards a game.
Blount had more than that on his own, peeling off 105 yards on 24 carries with two scores. That big night, Blount's second straight triple-digit effort, included a 41-yard touchdown run that was the final nail in Houston's coffin:
Brissett got in on the action on the ground too. His 27-yard touchdown scramble in the first quarter was both the game's first TD and the longest such run by a Patriots signal-caller in four decades:
Granted, Brissett's 11-of-19 passing for 103 yards was hardly Brady-esque. But the youngster from North Carolina State did what he needed to do. More appropriately, he didn't do what he needed to not do.
He didn't make mistakes. Didn't turn the ball over.
In winning his first NFL start, Brissett continued an impressive streak for Belichick. Every quarterback who has made his first NFL start under Darth Hoodie has won the game, as writer Luke Sicari noted:
That's where the real credit for Thursday's dominant win lies. With the dark lord of Foxborough himself.
We've become almost numb to it now because it happens so often, but to call this a masterful coaching job doesn't do it justice. Yes, the Texans helped, fumbling a pair of kickoffs and committing several costly penalties.
But Belichick, in four days, devised a game plan for a rookie quarterback against a 2-0 opponent that made the playoffs last year, and it was simply flawless—both in design and execution. There wasn't a single facet of the game in which New England wasn't absolutely dominant.
There have been any number of superlatives tossed around where Belichick is concerned. Genius. Mastermind. Snappy dresser.
But the job he's done the past few weeks with the Patriots might just be his masterpiece. This is a team whose best-case scenario in the opinion of most was to tread water until Brady came back. Once Garoppolo went down, the belief was at least the Patriots would be 2-2 when the Golden Boy returned.
Now, Belichick has 10 days to get Brissett (or Garoppolo) ready to face a reeling Buffalo Bills team that will probably be 0-3:
If the Patriots win that game (and I'm not about to bet against them), they'll have run the table with Brady out, beating a pair of 2015 playoff teams in the process.
The most inconceivable thing about that? The most mind-boggling part? That it isn't at all inconceivable or mind-boggling. The big surprise is that we shouldn't be surprised. Time and again, Belichick has shown that while the rest of the league is playing checkers, he's playing chess.
He'll not only take lemons and make lemonade, but he'll also steal his competition's sugar, leaving them to choke on the sour taste of defeat.
And his players believe, without a doubt, that they will win, no matter the circumstances. Blount said as much while speaking to the NFL Network's postgame show after the win.
"We always hold together through adversity," Blount said. "Nobody can get us out of our game plan. Nobody can get us to stray away from what we have to do. We stay on the path and stay focused on the task at hand."
The Denver Broncos are the defending AFC and Super Bowl champions. That crown is theirs until someone takes it. Denver has started the Trevor Siemian era in impressive fashion.
But they also play in a much tougher AFC West, while the Patriots showed Thursday what just about everyone knew already. The "race" in the AFC East is over. And with all due respect to Siemian, he ain't no Tom Brady.
You know, the Tom Brady who hasn't even played for New England yet.
He'll be back soon. Back to a team that will more likely than not be undefeated despite his absence. Back to a team on a collision course with not only the playoffs but also home-field advantage. Back to a team that just posted the most impressive victory of 2016 to date.
Brady's coming back to a team that just reminded us what we should already know.
The Patriots are the best team in not only the AFC, but in the entire NFL.
And they don't even need both hands to show you just how good they are.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.