HOUSTON – We've seen this story play out before – in Miami in 2004, then again in Cleveland in 2010. The Patriots, riding high with a solid record, go on the road and play terribly against equally terrible competition and the home team wins.
That's how the story started again in Houston Sunday afternoon, but then they dusted off the script they used just a week ago against Denver – putting their foot down on the gas pedal on offense. Problem was, the Texans kept pace with an old fashioned, Texas shootout.
But in the end, New England won its second straight game by a 34-31 score.
Here are some observations from the press box at Reliant Stadium:
…Stevan Ridley's deactivation was mildly surprising. Yes, he's had fumbling issues of late, but to bring him on the trip to Houston, then announce just before kickoff that he wasn't playing, appeared to be a clear message-sending move. Ridley was forced to watch the game from the sideline, in a long-sleeve t-shirt and shorts, with a football tucked under his arm the whole time.
…Special teams co-captain Matthew Slater said this week, "[The Texans] special teams unit really embarrassed us last year." The Texans picked up where they left off on the opening kickoff almost to midfield.
…New England lined TE Rob Gronkowski up in the backfield, left of Brady, on the opening series 3rd-down. Shane Vereen was flanked to Brady's right. At the snap, Gronk ran an an angle pattern (45 degrees out of the backfield), but Brady did not look his way. This was something we haven't seen from Gronk and the Patriots offense before.
…CB Aqib Talib was manning up on Texans receiver Andre Johnson early on, but would pass him off when he went in motion or ran a route against zone coverage. Johnson was getting wide open as a result on Houston's second possession, which ended in a touchdown run. In the second half, Talib was mostly covering rookie DeAndre Hopkins.
…Field conditions at Reliant Stadium were atrocious, much like the last time New England played here in 2009, when Wes Welker tore up his knee after it got stuck in the sloppy grass.
…Rookie Josh Boyce, often inactive this season, was in the lineup and returning kickoffs. He provided a bit of a spark there in the first half, but also showed up in the passing game with a catch for 6 yards. He followed that up with a nice downfield block on the next play to help Gronk get extra yards after his catch.
…Already without rookie WR Aaron Dobson (foot), the Patriots lost fellow rookie pass catcher Kenbrell Thompkins in the closing minutes of the first quarter. He appeared to injure his right groin while leaping for a catch and coming down awkwardly on the ground. He stayed on the field for one more play before limping off to the sideline, where the medical staff evaluated him for several minutes. Thompkins eventually went to the locker room, but managed to return on the next possession. However, the injury caught up to Thompkins again in the second half and he was unable to play the rest of the way.
…New England's defense used its 3-DE front, with Chandler Jones at tackle, for the first time in several games, to get pressure on Texans QB Case Keenum. It worked well on a second-quarter hit on Keenum by Ninkovich and Andre Carter that resulted in an errant throw and interception by rookie CB Logan Ryan. They also used their 3-DT, 2-DE look for the first time in a while to help slow down the Houston rushing attack.
…In the second quarter, Brady appeared to lose his communications signal in his helmet. That forced him to go several plays getting the call from the sideline the old-fashioned way – with verbal and hand signals. He then read the play call off his wrist band and called it in the huddle.
…James Develin, the hard-nosed fullback, earned the first rushing yards of his NFL career against Houston, including his first touchdown, a spectacular fourth-effort, leg-grinding run on the goal line. He also caught his third career pass, all from Tom Brady.
…Safety Steve Gregory (right thumb) returned to the lineup for the first time since injuring himself against Pittsburgh in Week 9. Gregory started and played most of the first half before yielding to rookie Duron Harmon in the 3rd quarter. Gregory eventually returned to the game in the 4th.
…Cornerback Kyle Arrington was exposed once again while playing on the outside. With Alfonzo Dennard inactive (knee), Arrington, better as a slot guy, was forced to the outside and was beaten badly on a 4th-quarter deep ball to Texans rookie WR DeAndre Hopkins, which resulted two plays later in a Texans go-ahead TD.
…Kicker Stephen Gostkowski was clutch, after barely missing a long-range 55-yard field goal early in the game. He finished in the fourth with a pair of 53-yard kicks that proved the game winners. Gostkowski is having perhaps his best season ever as a pro.