HOUSTON – Two early Christmas presents were delivered to the Patriots on Sunday afternoon. The Patriots then gave themselves, and their fans, another one.
Both Cincinnati and Denver, the two teams seeded ahead of the Patriots going into Sunday night’s game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium, lost at home earlier in the day. The Bengals wound up losing quarterback Andy Dalton likely for the season, and the game to division rival Pittsburgh, 33-20. Later in the afternoon, the Broncos ran up a 12-0 lead at home against Oakland, then totally gagged in the second half as the Raiders shocked the Broncos, 17-12. That put the Patriots in a position to regain the top AFC playoff seed despite having lost their last two games, especially that stinker at home last weekend against Philadelphia.
NBC chose to flex this game for Sunday evening, which seemed to favor the Texans in this game. You have the injured Patriots against the resurgent Texans, who with a victory could claim first place in the AFC South thanks to Indianapolis losing earlier in the day at Jacksonville, 51-16. Defensive icon J.J. Watt broke his hand this week in practice, but that didn’t figure to matter Sunday night.
To make matters worse for the Patriots, they would face a ton of ex-Patriots on the Houston side which would figure to do well against a team they know well. Head coach Bill O’Brien, coordinators George Godsey and Romeo Crennel, and linebackers coach Mike Vrabel would know how to scheme against their former boss. The starting quarterback for Houston is Tom Brady’s former understudy, Brian Hoyer. Oh, and their nose tackle is someone named Vince Wilfork.
What most everyone overlooked in this sort analysis is that Bill Belichick perhaps knows them better than they know him. Belichick won the coaching battle hands down, and his players played a solid game when it was badly needed. New England walked away with a 27-6 victory, and returned to the top playoff seed in the conference and in full control of their own destiny towards still another home field advantage in the 2015 playoffs.
The Patriots were able to win despite still more injuries. LeGarrette Blount, Dominique Easley and Devin McCourty all left the game early with injuries and did not return. The Patriots did welcome back Rob Gronkowski at tight end, and the big guy came through big time with four catches for 87 yards and a touchdown. His mere presence helped to set up an effective running game, which totaled 116 yards and an average of just under four yards per carry. The Patriots did rush more than they passed, which was a key factor in the win.
The defense held Houston to only two field goals. Hoyer never got comfortable against his former team, though he would not suffer any interceptions. Hoyer was sacked five times and pressured all game long. The Patriots did a great job of taking star receiver DeAndre Hopkins out of the game; Logan Ryan was assigned to cover him instead of Malcolm Butler (he drew Nate Washington), and he kept Hopkins on ice until a meaningless 40-yard catch in the fourth quarter with the game lost at the time.
Akeem Hicks and Jabaal Sheard each had two sacks. Sheard pressured Hoyer all game long, and was also effective against a Houston running attack minus Arian Foster. Houston ran the wildcat play five times and was stuffed every time. The defense kept Houston out of the end zone and allowed only two Nick Novak field goals.
About the only thing that didn’t go well for the Patriots was the use of instant replay. The opening drive of the second half for the Patriots featured two plays which were ruled completed passes but both were overturned (correctly) on replay. Later in the quarter, Hicks seemed to induce Hoyer into a fumble as he was attempting a pass. The officials ruled fumble, but replay showed that Hoyer’s arm was clearly going forward and the call was changed to incomplete pass.
In the end, none of that mattered. Houston’s offense is next to nothing beyond Hopkins, the Patriot defense put the clamps on any little smidgen of creativity O’Brien and Godsey tried to pull off, and the win seemed fairly easy throughout.
If the Texans can take anything positive from this beatdown on national television, it is that finally, after all this time, Jadeveon Clowney might finally be coming of age. The former top draft pick out of South Carolina, injuries have curtailed his development in particular and his NFL career in general. But Clowney made several big plays, sacking Brady twice. Against an offensive line seemingly concerned only with Watt, Clowney was able to cause disruption often. It wasn’t enough for the Patriots to want to ease up on double teams on Watt, but the rest of the league might want to stand up and take notice of this guy who can decleat anyone if he has the mind to do so.
Brady finished 22 of 30 passing for 226 yards, two touchdowns and a 116.8 passer rating. Brady looked more comfortable this week despite being sacked three times. For most of the game, Brady looked comfortable and never rattled. He didn’t make any foolish throws, and he seemed relaxed for most of the game.
It wasn’t a perfect game. There was still another special teams goof as Keshawn Martin muffed a third quarter punt, which Houston recovered but didn’t score any points off of. Brandon LaFell had still another key drop despite five catches for 32 yards. The Patriots committed six penalties, two more than Houston.
The Patriots did clinch a playoff berth with the win. If Miami loses Monday night against the Giants, the Patriots will clinch the division. The Patriots finish with a home game next week against Tennessee, and road games against the Jets and Miami. If the Patriots run the table, they will be the top playoff seed again and enjoy a bye week followed by two home games on their way to Santa Clara, California and Super Bowl 50.
Patriot Nation can feel much better. Cincinnati continues to be looked on with scorn from most everyone outside of southwestern Ohio and northern Kentucky, but virtually no one expected Oakland to rise up and beat Denver on the road. Perhaps Oakland taught the rest of the league how to defend Brock Osweiler. Whatever the case, football fans of the great northeast can rest easy for now. The Patriots are back where they seemingly belong.
Running the table is not perhaps as automatic as previously thought. But it is possible, and maybe probable. Sunday was truly a good day for the Patriots.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary