A week after their best win of 2020, the Patriots couldn't solve Deshaun Watson and the Texans for a second-straight season. Watson became the first 300-yard passer allowed by the Patriots defense this year and despite tightening up in the second half and making a late comeback attempt, the damage was already done.
Offensively, the Pats couldn't get into a rhythm but once again battled until the bitter end, even when forced to play catch-up by throwing the ball more than they had since Week 2. Not surprisingly, this week's loss also coincided with their lowest rushing output of the season since that game against the Seahawks. Despite making things competitive late, this is not been the formula for how the Pats offense has successfully won games this season.
With their playoff hopes down to a projected eight percent chance, New England's 2020 season isn't dead yet but the need to get their young players experience and find the base on which to build next offseason continues to rise.
Those young players will be the focus here as we break down a failure to launch in Houston.
Enel Powerful Play of the Game: Damien Harris touchdown caps off perfect start
It's not often that the Patriots execute a great start on both sides of the ball but are unable to sustain that success throughout the game, but that was what happened in this game.
Defensively, the team continued to lean into the personnel groupings that emerged against the Ravens, with Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger playing high off the edges of the defense and edge players Chase Winovich and John Simon also playing off the ball. With good tackling and solid third-down pressure the defense was able to force an initial punt.
Out of the gate it appeared the defense's added speed would pay dividends against the Texans but that was not the case as things devolved after this first possession with an inability to get to Watson and bad tackling leading the way.
However, the offense took the solid start and turned in an excellent drive of their own, going 84 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown, highlighted by a 34-yard screen pass to James White that saw him running downfield with a blocking convoy. It seemed like the Patriots tried to break some trends in this game, with a focus on first-down play action passes immediately apparent. That plan was effective here on the first drive, but that success was sporadic through the rest of the game.
Damien Harris' nine-yard touchdown run, which saw him go untouched into the end zone to grab an early 7-0 lead, was the high-water mark of the game and a reminder of how good the offense can look when they're executing and not shooting themselves in the foot with penalties. It is this week's Enel Powerful Play of the Game.
Back-to-back big plays set Texans tone
The good feelings didn't last long, as on the second play of the Texans ensuing drive, Watson was able to find Brandin Cooks for their biggest play of the game, a 44-yard catch and run that set the tone for the rest of the contest.
The Patriots were in man coverage on the play, with Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson getting tied up trying to sort out a two-receiver stacked bunch. Watson found the hole over them and in front of Devin McCourty and Cooks was off to the races for additional yardage.
In all, the Texans had seven passing plays of 20 yards-or-more, and they were spread throughout the four quarters of the game and on each down with three coming on first down and two each coming on second and third down. Tight end Jordan Akins had three himself, beating three different Patriots defenders on each as the unheralded Akins had a career day.
Immediately after Cooks' big play, Akins added a 22-yard catch and then the Texans would tie the game on the next play. It was clear from this point that Watson was locked in, especially downfield, as it was an easy six-play drive.
In our pregame keys, this was the first and most important thing -- not allowing the big plays -- and the Patriots could not do it, with bad coverage, lack of pressure and poor tackling all contributing at various points. If there was a defining feature of the loss, the big plays were it and this drive featured two of them, back-to-back.
End of half problems continue
The Patriots would regain the lead with a field goal, but both teams hurt themselves with penalties that stalled consecutive drives. Two of the Patriots punts before and after the field-goal drive could be tied directly to incomplete passes on first down as they started to get away from their bread and butter of the power run game.
Meanwhile, Houston would continue to pour on the big plays, putting up back-to-back gains of 25 and 21 yards to set up their second touchdown of the game that would help them get their first lead, 14-10.
New England had a chance to respond on the next drive, but a blown block by Ryan Izzo killed a third-down pass to James White that might've picked up big yardage. Instead the Patriots were forced to punt the ball back to Houston with just over two minutes left in the half.
Right before the half has been a tough spot for the Patriots this year.
- Against the Raiders, they allowed a 75-yard touchdown drive before the half that took just 28 seconds.
- Against the Chiefs, Brian Hoyer took a sack before the half that kept vital points off the board.
- Against the Broncos, they allowed a five-minute drive before the half that netted Denver another field goal.
- Against the 49ers, they allowed a touchdown drive just before the half.
- Against the Jets, they allowed a two-play, 38 second touchdown drive just before the half, that included a 42-yard DPI penalty.
- Against the Ravens, a J.C. Jackson interception saved them from allowing points before the half but they could not carry that success into the following week.
These kinds of situational shortcomings are striking for a Bill Belichick team and once again, the issues haunted them against the Texans. Again, Houston got big plays on the drive, with passing gains of 18, 24 and 14 yards setting them up for a touchdown that extended the lead to 21-10 and left under 20 seconds on the clock.
Houston would only get six points in the second half, but enough damage was already done.
Newton hits Byrd deep
The Patriots would have a rough first possession of the second half, losing Rex Burkhead on a third-down toss play to what looked like a serious knee injury. They'd punt back to the Texans but the defense forced their own three-and-out with Josh Uche showing up with a third-down tackle in space on Watson.
Uche, like Kyle Dugger, continues to show flashes of athleticism and strength, though it was clear the Patriots took some lumps by leaning into their younger players. Some notable snap numbers:
- Winovich 87 percent
- Dugger 75 percent
- J.C. Jackson 97 percent
- Uche 36 percent
After two-straight three-and-outs and down 21-10, the Patriots needed a response drive and they got it from one of their rising weapons, Damiere Byrd. Byrd came through with first with a 30-yard catch on 3rd-and-10 on the drive and then a dazzling 42-yard touchdown catch where he made an excellent adjustment on the ball as it was coming down.
Despite seeing Watson throw all over them, the Patriots were suddenly right back in the game thanks to the explosive downfield play that resulted in a quick strike. Byrd now has 32 catches on the season, tying the career high he had last season with the Cardinals. Like Jakobi Meyers, he has continued to emerge in recent weeks and his big play ability is transforming him into a piece the offense can count on.
There have been plenty of out-of-character aspects of the 2020 Patriots, but their resolve and fight has continued to be a constant.
Tying Drive Falls Short
The defense allowed two more field-goal scoring drives by the Texans, but the two drive ate up nearly 10 minutes of game clock as Watson continued to look comfortable in the pocket. Credit to the Patriots defense getting the two stops and keeping the game within striking distance. Both those stops were keyed by good first down defense, as the Patriots were behind in down-and-distance for most of the night.
The offense would put up another field goal drive, but it was a slog as the team fought through a holding penalty by Joe Thuney and two sacks that cost them 16 total yards. Still, they found a way to get back into it, powered again by Byrd and his 24 receiving yards on the drive.
Down seven with just over four minutes left, the Pats got one last chance to tie the game up. Again they moved the ball, with Meyers coming up with a clutch catch on 3rd-and-10 to keep things moving. They'd get as far as Houston's 24, but the last four yards needed for another first down could not be attained.
On 3rd-and-4, J.J. Watt would pick up his fourth deflected pass of the night as the Patriots failed to pick up the Texans blitz, forcing Newton into a hurried throw. On fourth down, a similar free rusher came flying in on Newton, destroying the play before it could develop. Identifying and picking up blitzers was a problem all night for the offense and ultimately that is what killed the Patriots comeback attempt.
As always, New England was competitive, but there were too many penalties and mistakes, both physical and mental, that kept the game just out of reach. It was another inconsistent effort in a season that has featured too many of them.