When the Patriots ran:
The Patriots never really established any consistency on the ground despite trying to do so on a number of occasions. New England opened the game with three straight runs – one by Rex Burkhead and two by James White – and promptly went three-and-out. Burkhead took on the role of lead back and was finished with pedestrian numbers – 18 carries for 64 yards and a 3.6-yard average. He also fumbled once and was fortunate that Chris Hogan recovered to allow the Patriots to continue a scoring drive. Jeremy Hill got some carries late in the first half and was effective with 25 yards on just four attempts, but he was lost for the game, and perhaps much longer, to a knee injury suffered in the third quarter. Hill may have been asked to help grind out the clock protecting a 14-point lead late but instead it was Burkhead, and the Patriots couldn’t move the chains on the ground. Overall New England racked up 122 yards but it took 31 carries to get there for a mediocre 3.9-yard average. Other than Hill, the production was lacking.
When the Patriots passed:
Tom Brady was without Julian Edelman and was working with a pair of wide receivers in Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson that he is not overly familiar with. At times that lack of cohesion showed, but there were more than a few occasions when Brady looked every bit like the reigning MVP too. He completed 26 of 39 passes for 277 yards and three touchdowns – all coming in the first half. He also threw an interception on a tipped pass but was at his best on the final drive of the first half in the hurry-up as he took the Patriots 78 yards on eight plays in 1:14, capping the march with three straight completions to Dorsett. Rob Gronkowski was his typically dominant self with seven catches for 123 yards and a touchdown, but it was Dorsett’s work that may be more important moving forward. He caught all seven balls thrown his way for 66 yards and a touchdown and proved to be reliable on some timing routes to the outside. That will be a needed component to the offense, especially until Edelman returns. White caught the other touchdown but was otherwise quiet with just four catches for 38 yards despite being targeted nine times. Otherwise, Hogan was limited to just one catch for 11 yards and Patterson had one for 6 yards. That lack of production forced James Develin to catch a career high four balls, none bigger than a key grab late for a first down.
When the Texans ran:
Houston ran its read-option attack and Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue caused some problems for the Patriots revamped front. Miller finished with 20 carries for 98 yards for a healthy 4.9-yard average while Blue tacked on 36 yards on just five attempts for a 7.2-yard average. Houston piled up 167 yards on the ground on 34 carries, and Deshaun Watson only accounted for 40 of them so it wasn’t like quarterback scrambles did much damage. There were several occasions when the Patriots were gashed up front, allowing Miller and Blue to split gaps between the tackles before finding space on the perimeter. That was the case early when Miller broke free for a 31-yard gallop to help the Texans escape the shadow of their goal line in the first quarter. Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy got the start inside with Danny Shelton mixing in. The combinations didn’t seem to matter as Houston consistently moved it on the ground. During a third quarter scoring drive the Texans ran the ball on five straight plays for 40 yards before finishing it with a 1-yard touchdown for Blue. The Patriots controlled the scoreboard for most of the day so perhaps there was an element of the Texans taking what New England gave them but given the struggles stopping the run from a year ago it’s worth keeping an eye.
When the Texans passed:
This was probably the difference in the game as the combination of the Patriots strong coverage and Watson’s inability/unwillingness to consistently make plays with his legs allowed the home team to dominate. Watson chose to remain between the tackles for the most part and simply wasn’t accurate enough to beat a well-school Patriots secondary consistently. He finished with pedestrian numbers – 17 of 34 for just 176 yards with a touchdown and a horrible interception thrown deep into double coverage as Houston was driving. DeAndre Hopkins was largely stymied by Stephon Gilmore, who seemed content to give up slants and other shallow crosses rather than allow him to use his size and strength down the sideline. Gilmore also had safety help most of the time and that allowed the Patriots to limit Hopkins to eight catches but only 78 yards. Will Fuller, the Texans No. 2 receiver, didn’t play and none of the others stepped up in his absence. Watson tried to get the tight ends involved but missed an open Ryan Griffin for a potential touchdown on a fourth-and-five in the third quarter. Griffin was blanked despite being targeted five times – which means Patrick Chung did his job well. Chung did get beat by Justin Thomas for 27 yards in the second quarter but that was his only catch. The front also did a nice job of containing Watson throughout the day and finished with three sacks. This was an excellent start for the new-look defense under Brian Flores.
Bill Belichick had Stephen Gostkowski land his kickoffs around the goal line in an effort to have return man Tyler Ervin make a decision. He did this on five occasions, and each time Ervin made it past the 25 with ease. Three times he scooted past the 30 as the Texans started drives at the 27, 37, 28, 32 and 31, which makes the work of the defense even more impressive. Ka’imi Fairbairn chose to bang his kicks through the end zone touchbacks so Patterson had just one attempt at a return and was buried at the 18. Also, Riley McCarron’s NFL debut ended with a disaster as he muffed Trevor Daniel’s final punt of the day and allowed Houston an easy touchdown off a short field that cut the lead to 7. It also forced the offense to move the chains with two minutes left to preserve the lead. McCarron chose to fair catch his other three attempts, and given the situation he likely should have done that once again on the final one. It wasn’t all bad, though, as Ryan Allen capped a strong day with an absolute gem. His final punt traveled 54 yards and was downed at the 1 by Jonathan Jones, making it nearly impossible for Watson and the Texans to pull off the miracle.