Riding a two-game winning streak, the Patriots traveled to Houston hoping to put together two quality performances in a row for the first time all season (the late comeback against the Jets on Monday Night Football notwithstanding). But that wouldn't be easy against a 2-7 Texans squad that is clearly more talented than its losing record might suggest.
"That team in not an indication their record. They have a lot of talent on that team," QB Cam Newton agreed afterward.
Following an opening-drive punt by Houston, the Patriots mounted a marvelous first march of 84 yards, much of which came on a 34-yard screen to RB James White. For the most part, the Patriots' offense relied otherwise on second-year ball carrier Damien Harris, who exhibited both speed and power on several runs. The final one was perfectly blocked inside the Texans' 10-yard line, allowing Harris to waltz into the end zone for the game's first score. Nick Folk's successful PAT put the Patriots up 7-0.
"We started fast. That's what we wanted to do. Obviously, we just didn't keep that momentum going toward the middle of the football game," White acknowledged later.
It didn't take long for the Texans to respond, either. Aided by a 44-yard catch-and-run by former Patriots receiver Brandin Cooks, Houston's offense moved the ball 73 yards, almost all from the arm of QB Deshaun Watson. The scoring drive ended when Watson found WR Randall Cobb along the back line of the end zone. Kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn knotted things up with his point-after.
Yet, Houston appeared to lose Cobb to a foot injury sustained on his touchdown catch, plus another pass catcher, Kenny Stills. The latter had been dealing with a back injury all week and was officially Questionable to play on Sunday, but a leg injury forced him out of this particular game.
Unable to move the ball on their second possession, the Patriots needed Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels to dial up some of his more creative plays on their third series to move the ball into scoring position. Folk eventually drilled his 16th consecutive field goal, this one a 45-yard effort, to put New England back in front 10-7 midway through the second quarter.
With a reduced number of receivers and backups on the left side of his offensive line, Watson focused on throwing to tight end Darren Fells, as well as his own legs, to get into a goal-to-go situation on the ensuing drive. Watson then bowled over a pair of Patriots defenders and cross the goal line for a go-ahead touchdown.
After forcing another Patriots punt, Watson and Co. took over late in the second quarter. New England's defensive front had difficulty getting to the Houston QB, who often nimbly eluded pass rushers in the pocket to gain yardage running. He also found Fells and other tight ends, Jordan Akins and Pharaoh Brown, for big gains. The Patriots didn't help themselves, either, with poor tackling efforts.
"Watson's dynamic. It's not like he's a statue back there [in the pocket]," co-captain safety Devin McCourty remarked in post-game comments to reporters. "He was able to buy some time and it's tough for everyone out there. He did a good job – even when it felt like we had him – of escaping. He put some pressure on us with some good throws and his ability to run."
Watson eventually found third-string receiver Keke Coutee on the other end of a touchdown pass to give the Texans a 21-10 lead (after Fairbairn's extra point kick) entering halftime.
"We definitely put some different adjustments in there to try to make it harder," McCourty revealed about New England's improved defensive results as the game wore on. "Some of that stuff helped us in the second half."
The Patriots' running game virtually disappeared, though, following its successful opening drive of the game. Getting the ball to start the third quarter, New England's running issues worsened when RB Rex Burkhead suffered a severe knee injury on a third-down carry. He had to be carted off to the locker room.
As a result, Newton took to the air. On the second drive of the second half, Newton heaved a 42-yard touchdown pass to WR Damiere Byrd, his first scoring grab as a Patriot. Byrd finished with his best numbers as a pro – six catches, 132 yards, and the score – but his thoughts were focused on losing both Burkhead and the game.
"You never want to lose your brother or teammate," Byrd pointed out. "Obviously, Rex has been great for us throughout the season. It was very tough to see him go down. We're praying for him and hope he has a speedy recovery, and that the injury isn't too bad."
"It's extremely devastating," Newton said of Burkhead's injury. "Knowing how great of a teammate he is, how great a leader he is, what he brings to this team. But he's a warrior, and I know he'll be back stronger. His influence will be missed."
"I'm hurt for him," added White. "He's a good friend of mine, not just a teammate. A guy I call my friend, to see him go down like that is never good. It's just tough. I hate to see it."
Houston responded to the Byrd touchdown with a decent drive that ended with a Fairbairn field goal, making the score 24-17 late in the third quarter.
Penalties plagued the Patriots all afternoon, yet, they found themselves driving for a potential tying touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. New England had to settle, however, for another Folk field goal to trim Houston's lead to 24-20. But Fairbairn would equal on the next Texans drive, so, it was back up to a seven-point lead, 27-20.
Another thorn in New England's side all afternoon was defensive end J.J. Watt, who knocked down several Newton passes, including one on the penultimate Patriots drive that brought up a fourth-down situation in Texans territory. Houston's defense then pressured Newton heavily on that fourth down, forcing him to throw an incompletion that essentially ended the contest – even though New England had one final, desperation crack at it with seconds left in the game.
"We had a good play called," Newton maintained about the fourth-down failure. "But it just came down to execution. They brought some pressure, I tried to make the most of it. That's a good defense."
"We just didn't pick up the pressure properly and it resulted in a bad play. Just didn't execute it properly," White confessed. "We had penalties, negative plays… it's not easy to convert when you're doing that. Obviously, we have to put ourselves in better situations, but guys continued to fight to the end of the game. That's all you can ask for. We just have to find a way."
"Disappointing outcome for us today," head coach Bill Belichick told reporters during a video conference. "We had some opportunities throughout the course of the game, just couldn't do enough with them, in all areas. Offensively, we moved the ball, but couldn't come up with enough points. Defensively, all the yardage we gave up in the passing game, we didn't do a good-enough job there, especially in the first half. Watson had a good day, like we've seen before. Just have to turn the page and move one. Still have confidence in the team."
"I definitely was confident in our entire offense. I think we all were," Byrd said of the team's final possessions. "We knew exactly what we were going to get [from the Texans' D], we just weren't able to execute.
"It's rough. That's what makes a difference in this league. It usually comes down to one possession, one play, two plays, to be able to tie it up or go in the lead. We have to find a way to be able to handle it and take advantage of it."
Meanwhile, in addition to Burkhead, starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn left the game prematurely with an injury late in the game. His status will bear monitoring this coming week when the Patriots resume practicing in Foxborough.