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."