The New England Patriots came into Sunday’s showdown with the 2-7 Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on their first multiple-game winning streak of the season following wins against the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens. This was the same site as their wins in Super Bowl XXXVIII and LI. However, it was the site of their 28-22 loss at the hands of the Texans last season.
The game turned into an aerial show as both quarterbacks threw for over 300 yards and neither team rushed for more than 100 yards. The Texans surged ahead of the Patriots in the second quarter and held the lead to win 27-20. Here is my breakdown of the game.
Last week against the Ravens, the Patriots relied on the ground game to carry the offense to victory in the elements. In Sunday’s matchup against the Texans, there were no elements to force an emphasis on the ground game as the Patriots could not get anything substantial in the rushing department. While Damien Harris scored his second rushing touchdown of the season to get the Patriots on the scoreboard in the first quarter, he was held to 43 yards on 11 carries. The Texans constantly ran loose in the Patriots’ backfield and, combined with the Patriots trailing the entire second half, running the ball was limited. With the way the offense is structured, the running game has to work for the offense to be at its best. To make matters worse, versatile running back Rex Burkhead suffered a knee injury, which is feared to be a torn ACL. Losing him eliminates a weapon in the passing game and another runner to spell Harris with some valuable carries.
The pressure was on Cam Newton to lead his team to a victory and he found success despite the loss. He threw for 365 yards, his highest passing total since he threw for 397 yards Week 2 at Seattle, and a touchdown. He looked comfortable in the pocket and spread the ball around nicely. Damiere Byrd was the go-to weapon in this game with 132 yards on six catches and a touchdown, his highest receiving total this season. His speed was too much for the Texans’ secondary to cover and Newton found him when needed. James White caught six passes out of the backfield for 64 yards, proving he can step up in Burkhead’s place. Donte Moncrief caught his first pass at a Patriot for 15 yards as he gives the team more depth going forward.
The biggest issue for Newton on Sunday was Texans’ All-Pro defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who batted down four of his passes. The lack of height on his throws was noticeable in the fourth quarter as Watt batted down Newton’s pass on the Patriots game-tying touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter on third down. One play later, the Texans once again penetrated the backfield and force an incomplete pass to give the ball back to their offense. The Patriots had a chance to tie the game on a Hail Mary but Newton’s pass fell 10 yards short of the end zone as Ryan Izzo was tackled as soon as he caught the ball. Newton could not avoid Watt’s swats and overcome offensive issues to lead his team to a game-tying touchdown.
The lack of a pass rush has been an issue this season as the secondary must cover receivers with the opposing QBs having a lot of time to find them. They are tied with the Tennessee Titans for the fourth-fewest sacks this season with 13. Sure, the Patriots only allowed 55 yards on the ground but the Texans did not need to run the ball to succeed in this game as Deshaun Watson was comfortable slinging the ball around the yard. He was not sacked once and got into a rhythm with his receivers as much as he has all season. Watson threw for 244 yards on 28 of 37 attempts and two touchdowns. Even with the return of All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the Texans’ receivers had plenty of room to maneuver in the Patriots’ secondary.
Brandin Cooks, Jordan Akins and Will Fuller all had at least four receptions and 80 yards on the game. The secondary for the Patriots is very good but when an elite QB such as Watson has time to throw, he will pick apart defenses and that is the best way to sum up this game. Watson looked way too comfortable and the pass rush is something the Patriots need to work on in the coming seasons to be contenders once again.
Nick Folk was money once again for the Patriots as he made both of his extra points and nailed his two field goal attempts. Gunner Olszewski had a rough day returning kicks as he only gained three yards on two punt returns and 12 yards on one kickoff return. The Texans’ coverage teams did a great job eliminating the return aspect of the game away from the Patriots.
The Patriots are still clinging to slim playoff hopes as they welcome the Arizona Cardinals to Foxborough on Sunday.