The New England Patriots defeated the Houston Texans 34-31 on Sunday.

While the team did get the victory, they still have a lot of work to do moving forward. Here is my report card for week thirteen. –

Offense Grade: B - 

The Patriots continue to struggle in the first half. It’s a trend and it’s a big problem for New England. They cannot expect to continue to battle back in the second half after putting themselves in a hole to start. That being said, the second half comebacks have been impressive and the Pats offense has been rolling after intermission, scoring on 64 percent of their possessions the past five games.

New England has been outscored 41-7 in first half last two weeks, but outscored opponents 61-21 after halftime. Tom Brady has been sharp in the third quarter the past two weeks, 22-25 passing for three touchdowns.

Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman have been huge contributors for the offense. All big reasons the Pats offense has rounded into form. Edelman’s nine catches Sunday kept the offense moving down the field consistently. He’s really stepped up his game throughout the year, managing to stay healthy, and picking up the slack as the unit transitions.

Throughout the Texans game specifically, New England put up 453 yards on offense and adjusted well to what Houston did on defense. Overall the unit operated well, despite a shuffling deck in the backfield.

Defense Grade: C -

Enough excuses. The injuries are easy to blame, but the defense has to play better in order for this team to be successful in the playoffs.

The Patriots defensive line has been a liability defending the run. Rookie Chris Jones and Joe Vellano have taken on much larger roles than expected and played well for the most part, but are continuously losing the point of attack when opponents run up the middle. Even if Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones set the edge on the outside, which they do very well, opposing tailbacks have cut back lanes inside.

The porous play by the defensive line against the run has also affected linebackers too. Not having a space eater up front, like Vince Wilfork who was double teamed more often than not by opposing lineman, is allowing offensive lineman to get up field and take on linebackers. Not to make excuses for the Pats linebackers play at times, but it’s been a problem since earlier in the season and is a big factor.

Houston’s big offensive line and shifty running backs were able to exploit these weaknesses Sunday.

Simply put, the Pats have to try and find an answer to slow down opponents rushing attacks. The more film gathered, the more warts can be exposed when it counts the most next month.

The defensive backs had a tough day as well, but the coaching staff’s decision to play a soft zone early in the game was questionable. New England’s cornerbacks are more suited for man coverage and the Texans receivers were finding space between the zone for easy completions. Devin McCourty, whose had a strong season, was lost in space several times.

Health is a factor for the whole unit, but it’s a reality the team has to face and overcome. Steve Gregory, Aqib Talib, Alfonso Dennard and Brandon Spikes are four players in particular who look like they could use some time to heal. A luxury the team cannot necessarily afford to risk as a division title and first-round playoff bye are up for grabs.

Special Teams Grade: B 

The Patriots special teams play has been solid all year, but Sunday there were some big errors that kept the game close.

The opening kickoff coverage by New England was poor, allowing Texans return man Keshawn Martin to run back 50 yards. A key play in the first half. This gave the team strong field position early, and while Houston was not able to capitalize on the opening drive, their sequential opportunity resulted in a touchdown. It was exactly the start the Pats wanted to avoid on the road.

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski made both field goal attempts from 53-yards, but missed a 55-yard try that snapped his streak of 21 consecutive made. This set up Houston for a short field and their second touchdown of the day.

Gostkowski is now 28-of-30 on the year and his strong kickoffs have added to an exceptional performance this season.

A big positive was rookie receiver Josh Boyce was finally able to return kickoffs, averaging 24.8 yards per attempt. His big return of 41 yards, the longest of the year for the Pats, resulted in New England’s first touchdown in the contest. He deserves more opportunities moving forward,

Overall Grade: B - 

Overall it wasn’t pretty, but the Patriots were able to come out of Houston with a win. New England received contributions from all three phases and while the end result was closer than expected, the Pats were able to overcome early mistakes to get the victory. It may not be the flashy, style points victories of recent years, but there’s no doubting the team’s mental toughness. It could be a big advantage in the postseason.

The Patriots now hold a 9-3 record and host the 4-8 Cleveland Browns in week fourteen. New England will look to win their third straight and potentially wrap up the division title Sunday. Be sure to check back for my pre-game thoughts later in the week in my Two Way Street entry.

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