HOUSTON – The Patriots under Bill Belichick's direction have won some important, memorable games here in Houston, most notably two of their six Super Bowl championships.
A win this December 1st wouldn't have quite the significance attached to it, but it would be consequential in its own right. By virtue of Oakland's loss in Kansas City earlier in the day, New England could clinch a berth in the 2019 playoffs by beating the Texans this Sunday night. Almost as crucial, a victory would keep the surging Baltimore Ravens – now 10-2 after staving off the 49ers – at arms' length in the chase for the No. 1 seed in this year's postseason AFC bracket.
Much to their chagrin, the Patriots would clinch nothing tonight.
"Obviously, we didn't play our best football game out there," RB James White remarked to reporters afterward. "Left a lot of plays out there, and some penalties. Just can't play like that versus good teams."
After New England's defense generated a quick three-and-out on the game's opening drive, its offense mounted a 14-play drive that only got as far as the Texans' 5-yard line. From there, the Patriots had to settle for a 23-yard field goal by new kicker Kai Forbath, after QB Tom Brady failed to connect with an open WR Phillip Dorsett in the back of the Houston end zone.
The D came through again for New England on the second Texans possession when LB Kyle Van Noy brought down QB DeShaun Watson at midfield for a six-yard sack on third down. However, Brady gave the ball back to Houston a few plays later with a red zone interception (intended for rookie WR N'Keal Harry), setting the Texans up nicely deep in Patriots territory.
Watson didn't take long to exploit the opportunity by tossing a 14-yard TD pass to wide-open RB Duke Johnson. After a quarter of action, New England trailed 7-3.
New England's first drive of the second quarter got close to midfield, but the Patriots had to punt it away when it appeared Brady and rookie WR Jakobi Meyers failed to connect on a third-down sideline route downfield. A penalty on the Texans during the ensuing punt return pushed the ball back to Houston's 12-yard line.
Thanks to some poor tackling efforts by New England on a couple of plays, Watson drove the Texans 88 yards in 13 plays. He finished off the drive with a 13-yard TD toss to TE Darren Fells, and with six-plus minutes left in the first half, the Patriots trailed 14-3.
Just before the two-minute warning, the sputtering Patriots offense could get no further than midfield again when Brady was sacked on third down. However, New England got one more crack at it with about a minute to go in the half. Yet again, though, starting from their own 30 following a Texans punt, the Patriots couldn't sustain the drive and had to punt from the Houston 39. Watson took a knee on the ensuing play from scrimmage to run out the first-half clock.
"They just played better than we did, honestly," WR Mohamed Sanu declared later. "Can't make mistakes and beat ourselves. We've got to execute."
New England got the ball to start the third quarter, but the result was the same. Rookie Jake Bailey was called on to punt it away after Brady was sacked for 10-yard loss on third down.
During that possession, o-lineman Marshall Newhouse briefly took over at right tackle for Marcus Cannon, who has been among the many Patriots suffering from an illness for the past week. Cannon managed to return to the huddle on the second possession of the third quarter, following another Texans punt.
Yet, the Patriots had to replace center Ted Karras with backup James Ferentz during that second drive when Karras suffered a knee injury. He was ruled out for the remainder of the contest.
From the Texans' 42, that Patriots drive stalled once more when Sanu saw his fourth-down pass from Brady broken up for an incompletion and turnover on downs. Six plays later, Watson found WR Kenny Stills twice in the Patriots end zone at the end of deep throws. The first was overturned by replay, but the second one left no doubt, as Stills cleanly beat CB Jonathan Jones for the scoring catch.
"They made more plays than we did. They played a good game," CB Stephon Gilmore lamented.
Successive penalties put the O in a 1st-and-30 situation, which WR Julian Edelman bailed them out of with a 44-yard catch-and-run that appeared to be a coverage bust by Houston. A second coverage failure left RB James White alone in the flat a few plays later. Brady found him and White easily waltzed untouched to the end zone to cut Houston's lead to 21-9.
A bizarre sequence followed, as Brady and the O stayed on the field for a 2-point conversion attempt, but New England somehow allowed the play clock to run down to zero. That five-yard penalty changed both the decision to go for two and the result of the PAT. Forbath yanked his 38-yard extra point wide left to keep the 21-9 score intact.
The status quo wouldn't last long. At the end of a 9-play, 75-yard drive, Houston pulled out a trick play that worked to perfection. Watson, from the shotgun, handed off to Johnson, his running back, who then handed off to WR DeAndre Hopkins, running in the opposite direction. As the defense converged on Hopkins, he pitched the ball to Watson, who dove over the goal line with it.
With 3:42 to play in the fourth quarter, Brady again found White for a touchdown pass. Two-point conversion attempt failed, as did the onside kickoff, but New England's defense held, and with just under a minute to play, Brady hit Edelman with a 20-yard TD strike. Forbath drilled the PAT to make it 28-22, and suddenly – remarkably – the Patriots were a successful onside kick away from having a legitimate chance to win the game.
White explained, "We started making plays downfield… tried to get ourselves back in the football game."
Bailey's wonderfully struck kick bounced favorably, but the Patriots couldn't recover and it sailed out of bounds. Houston knelt on the ball to run out the clock.
During Super Bowl LI here in this same building, the Patriots trailed the Falcons 28-3 before mounting the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. Sunday night, a 21-3 deficit against the Texans proved too much to surmount.
The eventual 28-22 loss, along with San Francisco's defeat in Baltimore earlier Sunday, means there are no more one-loss teams in the NFL this season. More pertinent to the Patriots, they've now fallen to the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff picture behind the Ravens.
What's more, in the AFC East standings, New England is now just one game ahead of the Buffalo Bills, who'll pay a visit to Foxborough later this month. But before then, a date at Gillette Stadium with the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs looms next Sunday afternoon.
"Got to go back to the drawing board, got to get better," added Gilmore. "We've got a home game next week, so, we need to correct what we didn't do well in this game, and go back to work."
"We have to play better, need to improve. Got to figure things out sooner or later," White emphasized. "We've got another good opponent next week. We've got to be ready to go from the start."
Welcome to December, when New England's weather grows colder. And its games get tougher.
The New England Patriots take on the Houston Texans in a regular season game at NRG Stadium on Sunday, December 1, 2019.