FOXBOROUGH – The mood in New England's postgame locker room was one of relief, as much for the way the game began as the way it ended.
The Patriots aren't used to being booed at home. More unusual – unprecedented, perhaps – are boos cascading down from the stands before the game even kicks off. That's exactly what happened, however, on Sunday.
Some of the most ardent Patriots fans vociferously expressed their displeasure with several players who decided to take a knee during the live performance of The Star-Spangled Banner. The en masse move came in response to comments made two nights earlier by U.S. President Donald Trump, who singled out the NFL for a number of recent sideline protests by players during the national anthem.
There was a palpable sense before kickoff that the Patriots, who normally adhere to tradition by standing as a team during the anthem, would make some sort of visual statement.
"We had our reasons," cornerback Stephon Gilmore remarked vaguely, "but we were happy to come out and get a win."
"We were obviously very conflicted," safety and co-captain Devin McCourty admitted. "We knew our message would be perceived by a lot of people in a way that wasn't what we were trying to put out."
Those boos quickly turned into cheers when New England promptly marched on its third opening drive touchdown in a row to start this regular season. However, the crowd got quiet soon thereafter when Houston showed it could keep pace with the Patriots, both offensively and defensively.
Despite committing numerous penalties and allowing WR Chris Hogan to go uncovered for a pair of touchdowns, the Texans traded the lead with New England throughout the first half. Houston's defensive front put considerable pressure on QB Tom Brady all game, while Texans rookie QB Deshaun Watson managed to elude most of New England's pass rush attempts with his nifty athleticism.
"He's a handful. Running around, people were diving at him and missing him," cornerback Malcolm Butler observed. "You see him leading his offensive line, leading some of the veteran players, just keeping his composure."
"You think your job's done one you beat the offensive lineman," recalled defensive end Trey Flowers, "but you've got a whole other job just to get a guy like [Watson] down. We knew what he was capable of coming into this game. He's a dangerous guy. You've got to pick your poison. It can be frustrating."
The Patriots also gave up several big plays in the passing game – a theme thus far in 2017 – which contributed to their letting an 8-point third-quarter lead erode to a 2-point deficit in the early fourth quarter. When Brady and the offense failed to convert a crucial 3rd-and-1 from their own 34, forcing them to punt to Houston, the booing cascaded down from the stands yet again.
On New England's next series, the offense met with another 3rd-and-1, and again, the Patriots couldn't convert. The fans reacted with near silence, many of them choosing to begin leaving the stadium.
Those who stayed were rewarded.
After Houston padded its lead with a field goal, the Patriots needed Brady to lead yet another vintage 4th-quarter comeback. He got some help from his most trusted weapons. Tight end Rob Gronkowski made a key catch for a 1st down, WR Danny Amendola came down with a fantastic catch deep downfield, and WR Brandin Cooks proved why he's earning the trust of Brady, his teammates, and his coaches when he hauled in the the game-winning touchdown catch, a tip-toe effort along the side of the end zone with seconds to spare.
"It helps in a big way," acknowledged Cooks, "because you can practice it so much, but game-time situation is where you really want to see it. So, the more plays like that being made, the more we'll get on the same page."
"Just wanted to get the drive going. We wanted to make some plays," remarked Amendola. "We had a long way to go. It's something we work on every week. When it comes down to a situation like that and the offense came through, it was nice. Cookie made a great play to win the game. It was awesome to see. He's a great player. And he's a great guy, too. We're glad to have him."
"I know a lot of people look up to me to get the drive going, to make the first play to get everyone rolling," Gronkowski proclaimed afterward." I knew that I had to make a play there. Tom read it pretty good and threw a really good pass and I just made the catch and I saw where the first down marker was and I knew I had to get it to get us rolling in that [2-minute drill]. Everyone did their job from there on out."
"Everyone has a little doubt," admitted Butler. "You don't think he's going to come through every time, but he came through. Tom was able to do what he does. I was glad the defense could hold them to three [at the end] to create that opportunity."
Still, the Texans were probably the better team on Sunday. New England appeared to be the beneficiary of some favorable replay reviews by the officials at times, and it took a last-second drive to snatch a victory from what looked like certain defeat.
Perhaps the added weight of the pregame drama contributed to the in-game performance. Maybe the unseasonably warm temperatures did as well. Many players made note of it afterward.
After three games, however, it's apparent that this Patriots team is still very much a work in progress on both sides of the ball.
"Great win, but we've got a lot of work to do," Cooks conceded.
"It's just the beginning," Gilmore declared. "We've got a long season to go."
For now, at least, the 2-1 Patriots can breathe easy.