…Great start to the night for the New England defense. Three plays, three nice tackles on individual efforts by three different players. Rookie DT Malcom Brown did an excellent job fighting off a block at the line of scrimmage to bring down RB Chris Polk for a minimal gain. LB Jerod Mayo then deciphered the next play and shot the A-gap to take Polk down for a loss. And on the third Texans play, DL Dominique Easley just used a textbook bull rush to overpower LG Xavier Su'a-Filo and drive himself into the backfield, where he basically brought down QB Brian Hoyer with one arm. This series set the tone for New England's night defensively.
…On the first two plays of New England's first drive, the o-line had trouble opening up holes for RB LeGarrette Blount. There wasn't much of a push by the line on the first play (Blount gained two yards), and on the second one, rookie RG Tre' Jackson was simply steamrolled by Texans NT Vince Wilfork. The veteran had the advantage of leverage, getting low on Jackson, then used his considerable weight advantage to drive Jackson backward and at an angle toward Blount. Wilfork stuffed Blount for a two-yard loss.
…Bill O'Brien tried to get creative on Houston's next possession by running a Wildcat play on 3rd-and-three, with WR Cecil Shorts as the QB. But again, a great individual play, this time by DE/co-captain Rob Ninkovich, ended the Texans' second drive. Shorts took the shotgun snap and faked a handoff to RB Akeem Hunt to Ninko's side (the defensive left), in an effort to make Ninkovich follow the back and create an opening for Shorts to run up the middle. But the experienced Ninko stood his ground, didn't fall for the fake, and charged at Shorts as he tried to run. Nice recognition and fundamental technique displayed there by the veteran defender.
…New England's second possession, a quick scoring drive, got started thanks to a 45-yard pass from QB Tom Brady to TE Rob Gronkowski. The play was a designed rollout to Brady's right, with Gronk, on the left of the formation running a deep corner route. Brady made a tremendous throw across the field and deep to Gronkowski, who got wide open when his defender, OLB Whitney Mercilus, tripped and fell while giving chase. That stumble may have made the difference in the play being complete, but it was still a great and difficult throw by Brady.
…The penalty that wiped out the first touchdown for the Patriots appeared to be incorrectly called. O-lineman Cam Fleming reported into the game as eligible as the extra blocker at the end of the formation on the line of scrimmage. TE Michael Williams and the flanker to that side, WR Keshawn Martin, both appeared to be a full yard behind the line of scrimmage, meaning neither play was "covering up" the eligible Fleming. That's not how Jeff Triplette's crew saw it, though, and they flagged the Patriots' offense for an illegal formation. The call moved the Patriots back five yards and took away a nice catch for a score by WR Brandon LaFell, but it only delayed the inevitable.
…Two plays later, from the Houston 2, Martin was flanking to the far left, guarded by CB Kevin Johnson. Martin ran what he sold to be a dig across the back of the end zone, but then reversed course and went to the corner pylon. Johnson got spun around and Martin found himself wide open for Brady's pass. Nice route by the former Texans receiver against his old club.
…One of CB Malcolm Butler's rare mistakes on the night, covering WR Nate Washington, came on the next Texans drive. Butler bit hard on a Washington dig-and-up route, which left the receiver open by about five yards. Had Hoyer thrown a better ball, it could have been more than a 49-yard gain, but because it was short, Butler had time to recover as Washington slowed down and turned his body for the ball.
…Newly-signed CB Leonard Johnson made a nice pass breakup on 3rd-and-5 from the NE 20, forcing a field goal. Johnson reached around Shorts and swatted the ball to the ground without making illegal contact with the intended receiver.
…Houston tried its Wildcat again in the second quarter, this time using RB Jonathan Grimes, but again, the Patriots front seven was up to the challenge. His two carries amassed just five yards. The Patriots were very disciplined in their assignments on these plays.
…Injuries continue to haunt the Patriots. Midway through this quarter, Blount took a handoff up the middle and wound up on the ground under a pile of bodies. He remained there for a while afterward as the training staff came out to examine him. It looked like his left hip took the impact of the fall, not that he took a direct hit to the body. He never saw the field again Sunday night and it remains to be seen just how much time, if any, he'll be forced to miss as a result of this. RB Brandon Bolden saw his workload increase in Blount's stead.
…New England did a fantastic job of making DE J.J. Watt a non-factor Sunday night. At times, the o-line double-teamed him, but by no means exclusively. The Texans tried to get him involved by moving him around along the line of scrimmage, but to little avail. He was ineffective no matter whom he went up against. The Patriots also ran the ball a number of times away from where Watt was lined up, and Brady delivered the football to his receivers quicker than he had in recent games.
…Brady's second TD toss of the night was just a simple jump ball throw to Gronkowski, who was one-on-one with safety Quintin Demps as Brady's left flanker. Nothing fancy about the play design, which we frequently when he's matched one-on-one in the red zone with undersized defenders.
…In the end, it didn't affect the outcome of the game, but an overturned call of a Danny Amendola catch on the opening drive of the second half looked anything but indisputable upon many reviews of the replay. The ball appeared to bounce as Amendola caught it, but I contend that it bounced off his hand or wrist, not the ground. It was not entirely clear from the replays which was the case, yet Triplette reversed his crew's decision on the field and called it incomplete. The call should have stood.
…Just a couple plays later, RB James White made a tremendous catch down the right sideline with a Texan draped all over him. Again, this was ruled a catch, but when Triplette reviewed the challenge by Houston, he overturned it because he ruled that White's left foot was out of bounds. Once again, there was no conclusive evidence on film that this was the case. This play should not have been reversed, either.
…After Martin muffed a punt and the Texans recovered deep in New England territory, the Patriots came up with a huge fourth-down stop to deny Houston any points. Hoyer completed a short pass over the middle, then Houston tried another Wildcat play with Grimes, which Alan Branch snuffed out for a loss of a yard. Butler then made a nice pass breakup on a throw to Washington in the end zone. On fourth down, Johnson – the brand new cornerback – used great technique to reach around the intended receiver right at the sticks to knock the ball away without committing an infraction. Tremendous job by a guy who, as of a week ago, had just come off injured reserve in a settlement with Tampa Bay. Johnson looked fresh and in midseason form, despite not having played since the preseason. His ankle injury looks to be a thing of the past and the Patriots may have a steal at a position that desperately needs depth.
…Right before that punt to Martin, on the third-down stop, safety Devin McCourty sustained a right ankle injury that seemed to be a result of just planting his foot hard on the turf. He wasn't hit by anyone. In fact, there was no one around him, but he is clearly seen taking a step toward the football and lifting his right leg up in obvious discomfort. He did not play again Sunday night.
…The Patriots got back-to-back sacks of Hoyer late in the quarter. This first was a great move by Akiem Hicks, who just used both hands to toss center Ben Jones to the side and rush Hoyer right up the middle. The next one was more nuanced. DE Jabaal Sheard came from the left side of the defense (Hoyer's right) unblocked. This was because LB Jamie Collins was occupying both the right tackle and guard as he tried to rush Hoyer. The tackle should have realized that he needed to pick up Sheard, but he may have thought he had help from his running back, Grimes, but Grimes ran a pass pattern out of the backfield, running right past Sheard without so much as chipping him to slow him down. Whoever was to blame, the Texans clearly had a busted assignment on this play. It knocked Houston out of field goal range and forced them to punt.
…Not the best night for LT Sebastian Vollmer. On one of his rare matchups with Watt, the DE tossed his aside and brought Bolden down for a 1-yard loss. Two plays later, DE Jadeveon Clowney also made Vollmer look silly as he spun Vollmer around with a shove and raced into the backfield to sack Brady.
…Ninkovich used a nice move to sack Hoyer on the next possession. When the right tackle went to engage Ninko, the Patriot swiped at his arms and ducked under/around the o-lineman. Ninko now had a clear path to Hoyer.
…Brady came under pressure again in the early fourth thanks to another individual move by a defender. This time, it was OLB Whiteny Mercilus, who used a spin move on center Bryan Stork that completely fooled the second-year man. Stork was left blocking air while Mercilus came charging up the middle on a defenseless Brady.
…Sheard, on Houston's next play from scrimmage, used a traditional swim move to beat the right tackle, Derek Newton, who then tried to slow down Sheard by grabbing his right arm briefly. Newton let go, realizing this would be a penalty, and Sheard proceeded toward Hoyer. Grabbing him around the waist, he spun the QB around and the ball popped free. Brown made a heads-up play to recognize that the play wasn't over and fell on it for the fumble recovery.
…White's TD run to close out the game's scoring was just a shotgun handoff with good blocking up front by the o-line.
…It bears repeating that the o-line did a tremendous job handling Watt all night. No one more so than Cannon, who saw the most one-on-one matchups with Watt and more than held his own. Might have been Cannon's best game as a pro.
…I was also impressed by the consistency of the d-tackle combo rotation of Brown, Alan Branch, and Akiem Hicks, who all did a nice job all night of limiting Houston's running game.