FOXBOROUGH – Thursday night games are usually tough in a number of ways.
Tough to prepare for, given the short week. Tough to watch, given the quality of play, which is a result of the first reason. And in the case of this Texans-Patriots contest, tough to predict what could happen, given the uncertainty surrounding New England's quarterback position (not to mention that nearly half the Texans roster and coaching staff has direct ties to New England and should know this club better than most).
Just four days after injuring his throwing shoulder, Jimmy Garoppolo never had a realistic chance of playing. He was among the Patriots' seven inactive players, meaning Jacoby Brissett would become the first rookie to start at quarterback for New England since Drew Bledsoe in 1993.
The script for a Patriots victory would have to go something like this: Play it safe offensively; play aggressively on defense and special teams.
With his limited experience in this offense, the playbook would be scaled down somewhat, or altered at the very least, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would tailor his play-calling to suit Brissett's strengths. Moreover, New England's talented but thus far underachieving defense would need to step to the forefront to help out the rookie passer in his starting debut.
Almost immediately, that's how it unfolded.
"It was very fun," wide receiver and temporary backup QB Julian Edelman smiled. "Anytime you can go out on a short week and beat a really good football team with a complementary game – offense, defense, special teams making big plays – it's a fun environment."
Read-options, misdirection plays, and designed runs gave this Patriots offense a refreshing new feel, and Brissett managed it effectively. His 27-yard touchdown run in the first quarter was a perfect illustration of brilliant design by McDaniels and pinpoint execution by the entire offense. The Patriots showed more faith in their rookie, third-string passer than the Texans did in their $72 million free agent QB, Brock Osweiler. Houston elected to run on several 3rd-and-long plays rather than put it in Osweiler's hands.
"Oh, yeah, [Brissett] showed great poise. He did a great job," remarked tight end Rob Gronkowski, making his 2016 debut. "He managed the offense super well. Did what he had to do. Everyone contributed. Super efficient, the whole offense overall.
"Super happy for the whole team, especially Jacoby. Got to give a hats off to our defense, the way they played, the turnovers. Unbelievable."
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots defense asserted itself. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard fought for a crucial sack on 3rd down on the Texans' opening drive, forcing a punt. Later, linebacker Jamie Collins came down with an interception for the second straight game. The defense continued to pressure Texans QB Brock Osweiler in critical situations in the second half, with Sheard registering another sack and the secondary defending passes.
At 3-0, New England has not allowed a point in the first quarter and leads the NFL with 34 first-quarter points scored so far in this young season.
"It feels great, man," grinned cornerback Logan Ryan. "That's why we play. We talked about doing a better job in the red area off of last week. A lot of people were questioning our secondary in that sense of finishing games, and I think we were able to do what we wanted to do, which is finish... I think we proved a lot."
Special teams even got in the act, creating a turnover on a Houston kickoff return to set up Brissett's scoring run. A nearly identical play occurred midway through the third quarter, with the Patriots getting the ball deep in Texans territory after Houston fumbled a kickoff. That, too, led to a touchdown, this time by LeGarrette Blount (the ball carrier later provided an exclamation point, 41-yard TD run to seal the win).
"Obviously, it helped us put our offense in good scoring position, put points on the board. Two big plays from special teams. We needed it this week and we did it," declared special teams ace Nate Ebner.
In addition, Ryan Allen's precise, powerful punts also helped New England gain an edge in the field-position battle.
"Yeah, Ryan was punting amazing tonight," added Ebner, the personal protector on the punt team. Ebner also forced the second Texans fumble. "I don't think they returned a [punt] all night. He was kicking them deep. We just tried to stay in there and protect for him and let him do his job. He's a great punter and showed that tonight."
Thursday night games tend to favor the home team, given all the factors involved. Rarely, though, do they play out as ideally as they did for the Patriots against Houston.
Gronk gets going
Lost in the euphoria of the shutout win was the return of Gronkowski, whose ailing hamstring has sidelined him for most of the last month. He clearly wasn't going to be a major part of the game plan Thursday, other than as a blocker (pass protection and the rushing attack).
However, when it became apparent that he wasn't even really needed in that capacity as the game got out of hand, Patriots coaches had the luxury of keeping Gronkowski on the bench and out of harm's way. He now has 10 days to recover and perhaps take on a larger role in Week 4 against Buffalo.
"It's good. Responded well," Gronkowski said of his injured hamstring. "I'm all good. Just felt good to be back out there getting my feet wet. Now we have [time] off for a little bit to get really right."
Just think of how much better this offense will be when he's at full strength… and Tom Brady returns from suspension.