By: Bob George/BosSports.net
November 23, 2003

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HOUSTON -- The mere will of a champion, in the end, is usually enough to carry them through any kind of adversity known to man.

And, at times, those unknown.

Submit for your approval the following: Tom Brady throws for 368 yards and two touchdowns, but gave away 10 points on two of his three turnovers. Adam Vinatieri had never missed an indoor field goal in his career, but doinked one off the right upright and had another attempt blocked. Ken Walter averaged 41.7 yards punting, but had a punt blocked which led to a Houston touchdown. Daniel Graham had about as many drops as he had catches.

In the end, championship mettle prevailed over expansion mettle, and the Houston Texans played gallantly enough to win but eventually just well enough to lose. With 41 seconds left in overtime, Vinatieri lined up for his second field goal attempt in the extra session, and the legendary Patriot kicker knocked it through from 28 yards. New England escaped with a 23-20 win, improved to 9-2, the best in team history after 11 games, and barely averted their first tie game in 36 years.

The near tie game is merely a footnote. Houston had several chances to win this game, and despite being outgained 471-169, actually played a cleaner game than New England. The Texans had a plus-2 advantage in turnovers, and their special teams, specifically Ramon Walker, blocked two Patriot kicks. Under normal circumstances, this is more than enough to give an underdog like Houston a "trap game" win, but in this case the Patriots simply never lost their poise and were able to come up with what was ultimately needed for the victory.

And when the season is carved up and dissected at the end, it's games like this which often explain why the team did so well in January and February.

Brady was one of several Patriots who brought their "C" game to Reliant Stadium on Sunday. Graham nearly played himself out of a job with a putrid first three quarters before catching three clutch passes in the last nineteen minutes of the game, including the four-yard scoring toss that tied the game at 20 with 40 seconds left in regulation. Vinatieri continues to have a subpar season, though the block in overtime by Walker cannot be blamed on the Patriot kicker. Deion Branch had a limited role thanks in large part to his sore wheels. Antowain Smith, who could have changed the complexion of this game had he been able to do his power running thing, had only 10 yards on eight carries.

The Texans, meanwhile, played the Patriots tough on defense. Houston often employed six defensive backs, which frequently confused Brady and took away lots of short routes which Brady normally is able to find. While all this was going on, a fierce pass rush led by former Patriot Steve Martin and Jamie Sharper harassed Brady often, resulting in four sacks of Brady. Jay Foreman, son of former Patriot running back Chuck Foreman, led the Texans with 14 tackles.

Martin, who played all game today like Patriot Nation would wish he had played last year, set the tone right away with a six-yard sack of Brady on the Patriots' first offensive play. He was flying around all afternoon long, looking more like his old Jet self and less like the bust he was last year in Foxborough. Of all the former Patriots in this game, Martin made the most impact.

Despite his gaudy stats, the defense induced Brady to commit some uncharacteristic mistakes during the game. In each case, Brady looked a bit like Drew Bledsoe in that he was trying to make a play out of nothing when he perhaps should have taken a sack.

With 8:10 left in the second quarter, the Patriots drove to the Houston 10. On third and five, Brady was harassed by a furious pass rush, took two steps forward, and tried to force a throw over the middle to Bethel Johnson at the goal line. Eric Brown stepped in front of Johnson and made the interception at the two-yard-line. But Johnson stripped the ball away from Brown, and Christian Fauria fell on the loose ball. A false start by Damien Woody helped cause the Patriots to come away with only a field goal.

Leading 10-3 in the third quarter, Brady drove the Patriots to the Houston 34. With 4:43 to go in the third quarter, Brady again tried to force a pass into tight coverage, and two ex-Jets converged on the football. Marcus Coleman snatched the pass intended for Dedric Ward, and he ran 29 yards down the right sideline to the Patriot 11. Two plays later, Tony Banks tied the game with a lob pass to Andre Johnson into the end zone from 10 yards out.

The Patriots maintained their poise and pulled ahead, 13-10 on a Vinatieri 32-yard field goal to start the fourth period. After holding Houston on a three-and-out, Brady took over at the Houston 42 and drove 27 yards to the Houston 31. Then, on first down, Kailee Wong came in unblocked on a blitz from his left linebacker position, and hit Brady just as he was about to throw the ball. Brady's arm never went forward, and Foreman picked up the loose ball and rumbled 33 yards to the Patriot 31. No such luck on a tuck after replay review, and Banks gave the Texans its first lead two minutes later when Rodney Harrison slipped and fell, allowing Billy Miller to catch a 16-yard touchdown pass wide open in the left flat.

The Patriots went three-and-out, but Walter's punt was blocked by (who else) Walker, who recovered the doomed punt at the Patriot 20. This led to a 31-yard field goal by former Steeler kicker Kris Brown and it was 20-13 Texans. Two turnovers and a blocked punt put the Patriots in this position, despite dominating the Texans in passing yardage.

It didn't get much better in overtime. Mike Vrabel picked off a Banks pass on the first play from scrimmage in the extra session, giving the Patriots a solid chance to end things quickly by returning the pick to the Houston 23. But Walker blew in from the left side and swatted down Vinatieri's attempt from 38 yards out.

Given all this, what won the game for the Patriots were Brady and the defense doing what it had to do when it had to. The drive that tied the game for the Patriots in regulation was a marvelous 80-yard, 9-play drive which featured Graham, who had three drops prior to this drive. Graham hauled in a clutch 33-yard grab on a broken play where Brady spent eight or nine seconds scrambling. After a 21-yard screen toss to Kevin Faulk got the Patriots into the red zone, the Patriots had a fourth and goal at the one. Brady rolled right and found Graham, who made a leaping catch and juggled the ball with those hands of stone he has.

And the defense had it when needed. Tyrone Poole, despite being burned on the Johnson touchdown, once again came up with big plays. Rodney Harrison and Willie McGinest had 13 tackles between them, and Harrison was credited with two sacks of Banks. The most important defensive drive of the day for the Patriots was in overtime, where a poor Walter punt had Houston perched at the Patriot 35. McGinest then stuffed Domanick Davis for no gain, smacked him in the backfield for a five-yard loss, and a fierce pass rush caused a Banks deep overthrow to Johnson. The Texans had great field position, but instead had to punt and the Patriots embarked on their game-winning drive.

The Patriots will look back on this game with great pride, even though it was a game they seemed destined to lose. Bill Belichick may hate the "trap game" moniker, but that is exactly what this game was. Teams who get these games against underdogs often reveal their true character by winning beating pesty teams like Houston in tough games.

And win the Patriots did, all the while Patriot Nation heaving a huge sigh of relief in the process.


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