For the second consecutive week, it was a tale of two halves for the New England Patriots, who overcame a double-digit deficit at halftime on their way to a last-minute victory.
Heading into the game, the Patriots looked like overwhelming favorites to march into Reliant Stadium and win in convincing fashion. Despite a plethora of talented players on both sides of the ball, including reigning NFL defensive player of the year J.J Watt, there's only so many things that a 2-9 team can do consistently well. While erratic play at the quarterback position and injuries to star running back Arian Foster and linebacker Brian Cushing have left a toll, this Texans team is hands down the biggest underachiever in the league this year. A popular pick to represent the AFC in the super-bowl just a few months ago, Houston now looks like a lock to be picking in the top 5 of the upcoming NFL draft in April.
But Houston, who despite all of their woes this season, actually entered Sunday's game with the number one ranked passing defense in terms of yards allowed. They hung tough, allowing just seven first-half points to an offense that has been rounding into form in recent weeks, and had their way against a defense that didn't appear ready to play a physical brand of football.
Offensively, New England made the key adjustments that allowed them to move the ball and have success in the Red Zone in the final two quarters. Defensively, not a whole lot changed.
For much of the game, all three levels of New England's defense struggled mightily. In what has become a defining characteristic for this team since the loss of pro-bowlers Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, the front-seven was invisible against the run. Less than a week removed from allowing a combined 280 yards on the ground to the Denver Broncos, Houston's back-up rusher Ben Tate was able to amass 102 yards on 22 carries, while also scoring three touchdowns. The rookie defensive tackle duo has played well for stretches this season, but continue to get pushed around by bigger, more physical offensive guards. It was a quiet day for New England's defensive ends too, who failed to generate consistent pressure on second-year pro Case Keenum. Keenum, who was sacked just once, didn't have a great day throwing the football, but was able to average 18.1 yards per attempt on Sunday. Linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower both had lackluster games. Hightower's recent struggles are becoming well-documented; he doesn't appear to react quickly enough to either passing or rushing situations, and doesn't take advantage of his bulk by attacking the line of scrimmage like Spikes does. Ex-Patriot and current analyst Troy Brown asserted after the game that Hightower needs to pursue plays better and have a 'higher motor."
New England's secondary has been the surprise of the season, but they also had a day to forget Sunday. Though they mostly held up in man coverage, several miscommunications led to receivers running wide open down the field for big plays.
Overall, the defense looked sluggish and missed a number of tackles. They were actually fortunate enough to benefit from a number of dropped passes from Houston receivers. The coaching staff will need to come up with some new wrinkles or find other ways to motivate players, because as of now, this defense does not look up to the task of slowing down Super-Bowl caliber offenses come playoff time.
It's too bad Tom Brady can't learn to play defense real quick; that group could certainly use his leadership and clutch play. Brady came out of the tunnel at halftime and led the Patriots to three straight touchdown drives. With Stevan Ridley riding the bench as penance for his ball-security issues, New England could never muster up much of a ground attack, averaging just 3.3 net rushing yards on the day.
Where the running game struggled though, Brady picked up the slack in a big way. He completed 78.2 percent of his throws in the second half and spread the ball around to a total of eight different receivers- including one to unheralded fullback James Develin. Though Brady's final stat line of 371 yards for two touchdowns and an interception aren't eye-popping, he did throw for 20 first downs and orchestrated a perfect 3-3 efficiency in the Red Zone.
Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman had breakout performances also. Edelman surpassed 100 yards receiving for the third time this season, causing Tom terrific to take notice on Monday.
"This year has been a really good year for him. He's really taken to a leadership role. He's just done a great job cementing his dependability. He's become a real dependable player for us, and his ability to get open and catch the ball and do something with it, you especially see that on punt returns. But for a guy to get the ball in his hands and then make as many plays as he's making has been huge for our team."
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