It took almost the full 60 minutes and even then it wasn't quite comfortable but Tom Brady did what he does best and rallied the Patriots 75 yards in the waning seconds. He capped the drive with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks to lift the Patriots to an improbably 36-33 victory over the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium.
Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots second win of the season.
-The Texans came into Foxborough with an aggressive game plan that seemed to throw caution to the wind in terms of their rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson. Rather than protect the youngster, making just his second career start, Texans coach Bill O'Brien threw the ball often and remained balanced throughout. But when the game was on the line and Houston was in position to deliver the knockout blow, and he failed to throw the punch. Facing a third-and-one from the Patriots 18 with 2:34 left, he took the ball out of his quarterback's hands. Watson gave the Patriots fits with his mobility, often moving out of the pocket to buy time and pick up yardage with his feet. Rather than rolling Watson out off play action to give him a run-pass option, O'Brien chose to run it up the gut and Lamar Miller was stuffed. The Patriots then burned their second timeout, which gave the Texans time to discuss their course of action. A fourth-down gamble would have given then Texans a chance to close it out by picking up a yard. Instead he settled for the field goal and allowed Brady the chance to do what he's done countless times in his career. "I considered [going for it], but I just felt like at that time that if we could make it a touchdown game, probably best decision for the team. Didn't work out that way," he said. O'Brien had a chance to make a statement and failed.
-After serving as a backup in the Week 2 win in New Orleans, Malcolm Butler was back in the starting lineup. He had opened 38 straight games before his demotion in The Big Easy, but he lost his job to Eric Rowe and served as the nickel back. Rowe was forced to leave that game with a groin injury and was among the inactives against the Texans. Jonathan Jones served as the third corner against Houston.
-Rather than having Butler or Stephon Gilmore lock up exclusively with Texans star wideout DeAndre Hopkins, the Patriots instead kept the corners in place and allowed Houston to dictate the coverage. Both Butler and Gilmore saw plenty of Hopkins one-on-one but only when the wideout lined up on their respective sides. Gilmore had solid coverage on Hopkins in the first quarter on a deep crossing route but pulled the receiver's jersey as the ball was coming in, leading to a 34-yard pass interference penalty that led to a Houston field goal. Gilmore bounced back later and came up with his first interception as a Patriot when covering Hopkins. Rookie Deshaun Watson was looking for the wideout on a back shoulder play but Hopkins continued his route, allowing Gilmore to stop and make the easy pick. His return deep into Houston territory set up a touchdown.
The New England Patriots take on the Houston Texans in a regular season game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, September 24, 2017.
-Hopkins has his share of plays with seven catches for 76 yards, using his physicality to outmuscle Butler on a couple of occasions. Gilmore also had to leave the game for a series in the third quarter when he was suffering from dehydration on the unseasonably warm afternoon at Gillette Stadium. The Texans took advantage of his absence and drove for a touchdown on the drive.
-The Patriots once again were without Dont'a Hightower, who missed his second straight game with a knee injury. Hightower practiced all week on a limited basis but was evidently not quite ready to return on a full-time basis. In his place the Patriots continued to use Elandon Roberts at middle linebacker while sticking with Trey Flowers (left) and Adam Butler at ends and Lawrence Guy and Malcom Brown at tackle. Cassius Marsh opened at outside linebacker with Kyle Van Noy and Roberts in the base defense.
-Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels strangely went conservative at the end of the first half and allowed the clock to run out rather than go for more points. Leading 21-20 with 1:02 left and a pair of timeouts, the Patriots picked up a first down with a Tom Brady scramble and a holding call on the Texans, moving the ball to the New England 41. At that point Brady misfired on consecutive plays, underthrowing Brandin Cooks on the sideline and then missing an open Danny Amendola down the seam. With 43 seconds left, the Patriots went to a James White draw on third-and-10, which went nowhere. With solid field position and still two timeouts, it made no sense to not try for the first down with another pass. Even an incompletion wouldn't have done much damage because the Texans were out of timeouts and would have needed a huge punt return to threaten. Instead, the Patriots ran it and then simply let the clock run out to close the half.
-The offensive line was without Marcus Cannon, who was inactive while dealing with an ankle injury as well as a concussion. LaAadrian Waddle took his place on the right side but overall the pass protection was lacking virtually throughout. Brady was sacked five times and hit hard often. He fumbled three times, losing one for a touchdown, and nearly lost another one on the final drive when David Andrews saved the day. The Texans vaunted front was active all afternoon with Whitney Mercilus, J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Christian Covington all got their hits on Brady. Nate Solder, who was missing for portions of the pregame while dealing with "a personal situation," struggled handling the Texans edge pressure. That was responsible for the offense's periods of inconsistency throughout the game.
-Big plays continue to be a big problem for the Patriots defense, but fortunately they made their share on offense as well. On the negative side, the Texans had plays of 35, 34, 31, 29 and 28 yards with the 29-yarder resulting in a touchdown. Normally the Patriots do a good job of keeping the ball in front of them but that hasn't been the case thus far this season. Devin McCourty has been late occasionally in dep coverage, and some poor tackling angles have also caused problems. That was the case when Van Noy went for an ill-advised interception and allowed D'Onta Foreman to scoot 34 yards down the sideline after a short pass in the fourth quarter. The Patriots were even better with plays of 47, 44, 42, 27 and 25 yards, two of which went for touchdowns.