After a week of misery where the Patriots saw their locker room get swept up with a team-wide illness, Sunday night’s performance in Houston certainly didn’t leave anyone feeling any better.
Bill Belichick took his healthy players on one plane and his sick players on another, clearly hoping to keep the illness from spreading. Instead, their 28-22 showing against the Texans likely ended up being nauseating for everyone and the team now finds itself with a remaining schedule full of must-win games if they hope to earn a top seed and possibly even win the AFC East.
With this one behind us, here are some thoughts coming off of the loss.
1) The discussion this week will likely center around the lack of offensive weapons at Tom Brady’s disposal but it’s hard not to look back at what happened in this game and not feel like the problem extends beyond their lack of experienced talent at the receiver position.
Obviously the miscue by rookie wideout N’Keal Harry that led to an interception was bad, especially since Houston took advantage and scored their first touchdown. But the fact he was essentially completely removed from the offense is pretty disappointing.
Harry wasn’t targeted again following the interception and was on the field for just 22 of the 87 offensive snaps Sunday night, clearly being penalized for the miscue. It was definitely a bad play, which saw him not fight through the defender for the football and led to the interception. But following that turnover, Harry appeared to see little of the field and it was surprising to see them completely give up on him.
For a team that used a 1st round pick on him, it’s surprising that he would be taken out and alienated considering they need every receiver they have to be involved right now. Some may say Harry’s disappearance might be on Brady, but the lack of playing time was clearly a coaching decision and that’s obviously not great news.
If that’s the case, it’s telling for the future of Harry this season, who a few weeks ago seemed like he might have been one of the answers this team has been in need of. Instead, he’s now become a question mark and it’s concerning not just for the remainder of this season, but potentially moving forward if they hope to avoid failing with developing yet another young receiver.
2) This group right now really is a mess, with the veterans accounting for the majority of Brady’s attention as he selectively tries to work the younger guys into the mix. One thing is obvious, as much as it’s going to irritate him, Brady is going to have to force himself to get other players involved in the offense, no matter how uncomfortable it makes him.
There weren’t many occasions where guys came open but there were a few where players like Matt LaCosse and Jakobi Meyers managed a little separation, but Brady instead opted to target his more trusted receivers in both Julian Edelman and James White, who each combined for 214 of the 326 passing yards Brady finished the evening with.
But for the most part, his usual guys were covered and some of his targets were forced, with Phillip Dorsett and Edelman both seeing several passes thrown their way that should never have happened, including two plays where the ball was heaved downfield both to Dorsett and to Edelman (who was double-covered) and nearly picked off, with Brady clearly hoping for either a miracle or a pass interference penalty. Neither happened.
Mohamed Sanu was a guy many hoped would be a difference-maker, but he’s been banged up and played just 19 offensive snaps Sunday night as he continues fighting through an ankle injury. Brady went to him early in the third quarter, which included a 3rd-and-4 where Sanu couldn’t quite reach the marker. The Patriots went for it on 4th-and-1 and Sanu, who was also interfered with on the play, was targeted again couldn’t quite come up with the football. That was a critical sequence because the Texans turned around and took the football the other way on the ensuing possession, with Watson hitting Kenny Stills for a 35-yard touchdown.
Brady clearly has his expectations of how he expects the offense to be run and he was spotted Sunday night imploring his receivers to be “faster”, “quicker” and “more explosive”. He’s got guys who are both quick and fast, but the mental complexity that goes with this offense is clearly creating a learning curve that the younger players have yet to master. You saw it on the play where Meyers didn’t turn upfield when the play broke down and you saw it again where the depth of his route didn’t change and he collided with Edelman, who was penalized for a pick play after Meyers crossed in front of him. Those are mental mistakes, but not reason enough to yet give up on guys who will potentially be valuable down the stretch.
Those are the plays which account for Brady’s frustration and is just going to require patience, because there isn’t another player walking through that door to help them out.
Brady may not realize it, but he’s getting what he wants. He might prefer older, more experienced players, but they need to get younger, faster and quicker and have two very good receivers that fit that description. Despite the growing pains, Brady is just going to have to accept the fact things aren’t going to be perfect and rather than ignoring them after a bad play, he’s going to have to stick with them if he hopes to see them become valuable assets in this offense. It needs to happen, because the offense can’t be stuck in neutral if they expect to beat another tough opponents in the Chiefs team this weekend.
Michel had a productive night against the Texans.
3) Speaking of the offense, it was surprising to see them completely give up on running the football, especially considering the success Sony Michel had early in this contest.
Part of the reason why is somewhat obvious. The fact Michel isn’t a dual threat is likely the reason he came out of the game in favor of James White, with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels probably hoping to make things a little more unpredictable for the Texans’ defense.
The bad news is, it made the Patriots less effective and they struggled to sustain drives and give New England’s defense much of a break through much of the first half.
That remains a curious situation given that Michel has shown some good moments catching the football and working in the open field. The problem is, when he’s dropped a pass or not made a play, they completely get away from targeting him. That’s quietly been the story with several offensive players this season and it’s bizarre that they haven’t yet realized giving up on guys and not going back to them has become a pattern that has really hurt them and kept them from potentially getting to where they need to be. Michel has shown he can fill that role when he needs to and it’s strange that they didn’t use him more after he had been productive prior to them going away from him. Whether or not that changes remains to be seen, but that’s been how things have gone so far with the second-year running back who had 621-receiving yards and 6 touchdown receptions during his collegiate career at Georgia.
4) The loss of Stephen Gostkowski continues to loom large, especially after losing Nick Folk to an appendectomy coming into this game.
Newcomer Kai Forbath hit a 23-yard field goal to cap the team’s first drive of the game, but missed an extra point and he looked pretty shaky as the team struggled all game long to sustain drives.
Say what you want about Gostkowski, but he missed just one field goal in his eight attempts this season before getting injured, although he was 11/15 on his extra point kicks. But if the team was in field goal range, there wasn’t much doubt that Gostkowski had a good shot at hitting it. Instead, not having a reliable field goal kicker is something that has definitely hurt them this season and you saw again on Sunday night how it affected some of their decision making.
This will likely remain a problem and when you take into account their offensive struggles, it’s even more concerning as these games continue to become tighter and more meaningful heading into the end of the season.
Despite giving up a few big plays, the defense played about as well as could have been expected Sunday night.
5) Meanwhile, despite how much they struggled, the defense actually had a better game than people think, especially after Belichick pulled them aside late in the first half and started making adjustments.
They did a reasonably good job keeping Deshaun Watson in check, with the Texans really only putting together and scoring one good touchdown drive in the first half, which came on a 13 play, 88-yard possession where Houston held the ball for nearly 7-minutes and wore down the Patriots’ defense. The other touchdown came on the Brady/Harry interception, which gave Houston the football at the New England 21-yard line, setting the Texans up for an easy scoring play to Duke Johnson just 3-plays later.
They actually held Watson to just 3-of-7 in the Third quarter, but the problem was, each of those completions went for 15, 20 and a 35-yard touchdown pass, respectively. For a group that’s normally good about not allowing big plays, that was their Achilles heel as the Texans pulled away.
However, the fact the Patriots managed just 3 points really made things tough and it seemed like it was just a matter of time before the wheels eventually came off. That’s unfortunately, exactly what happened after Houston marched their way down to the Patriots 35-yard line early in the third quarter, with Watson tossing a 35-yard pass to Will Fuller, who appeared to haul in the football for the score. However, replay showed that Jonathan Jones got his hand in and kept Fuller from controlling the football and the call was reversed and called incomplete.
But the Texans wasted no time going right back at Jones, with Watson this time throwing a perfect 35-yard pass to Kenny Stills on the next play for a touchdown, which suddenly put the pressure on New England at 21-3. That play was a tough one, especially after the close call Jones had just one play earlier. It was also the second longest scoring pass play allowed all season, with the previous one coming all the way back in Week 6 against the Giants thanks to Golden Tate’s 64yd touchdown.
The Patriots answered with a scoring drive of their own on the next possession, but the failed extra point seemingly took the wind out of their sails and they trailed 21-9 at the end of the third quarter. Houston then put together a drive to begin the fourth quarter that ended with a toss to Deandre Hopkins, who then threw a touchdown to Watson on a play that looked like a pitch but was ruled a forward pass, with Watson diving into the pylon for the touchdown.
Either way, the real story of this game was the fact on a night where they were facing a good team who came in with a good game plan, the lack of complimentary football by the offense was really their bigger issue. Three first half points obviously wasn’t enough and unfortunately, it put them in a hole just deep enough where despite their last-second scoring run, they just couldn’t recover.
As good as this defense has been, expecting them to hold opposing teams scoreless if they can’t put up points is asking a little much and all things considered, especially considering the state they were in health-wise, they played about as well as could have been expected.
With the Chiefs up next it’s another big challenge and expecting this group to shut down Pat Mahomes and the rest of the Kansas City offense is going to be a tall order if they can’t put up any points. If that ends up being a problem again this weekend, they’re going to be in for another long afternoon.
Hopefully, they’ll figure it out. They’ll spend the rest of this week trying to put this one behind them and do just that before they kickoff against the Chiefs on Sunday at 4:25pm.