By Gregory Hunt
Sunday afternoon at Reliant Stadium, the Houston Texans gave the New England Patriots all they could handle, but the Patriots overcame a 17-7 halftime deficit to pull out a 34-31 victory. The second half of the game featured five lead changes, but a field goal by Stephen Gostkowski with 3:32 remaining in the fourth quarter turned out to be the game-winner. Following last week’s 24-point comeback against the Denver Broncos, New England became the first NFL team since the 2011 Patriots to overcome deficits of 10+ points in consecutive weeks. New England is now 6-3 this season in games determined by a touchdown or less.
Offense Grade: B+
Quarterback Tom Brady continues to have occasional accuracy problems. His first-quarter interception was thrown far too low, although some pressure from the Texans defense may have contributed to that. Later, tight end Rob Gronkowski bailed out Brady by grabbing a throw that was too low and rolling into the end zone for New England’s first touchdown. However, Brady was money in the bank after halftime, leading the Patriots to touchdowns on their first three possessions and to field goals on their next two.
As CBS Sports analyst Dan Dierdorf put it, wide receiver Julian Edelman “is not Barry Sanders,” but he’s hard to handle one-on-one in open space. Edelman used his elusiveness to catch a game-high nine passes, good for 101 yards. However, Gronkowski was a little more explosive, gaining 127 yards on only six catches. Wide receiver Danny Amendola and running back Shane Vereen caught five passes apiece, helping make up for the absence of receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. Dobson missed the game with a sprained foot while Thompkins suffered a hip injury while making his only catch of the game in the first quarter.
The fumble-prone Stevan Ridley was a healthy scratch for this game, so most of the rushing was handled by Vereen and LeGarrette Blount who combined for 82 yards on 22 carries. Fullback James Develin hadn’t rushed the football all season until his two carries on Sunday, and his third-quarter rushing touchdown was one of the best examples of power running you’ll ever see. The Patriots running game wasn’t spectacular, but it did enough to set up the play-action pass. Most importantly, none of the running backs fumbled even once.
Defense Grade: C-
It’s never a good day when your defense gives up 31 points. Thanks to various injuries, New England started five rookies on defense and their inexperience showed on occasion, particularly when the Houston receivers were able to find soft spots in the New England zone coverage. Coming into this game, the Texans had scored only two rushing touchdowns all season, but they scored four rushing touchdowns against the Patriots. Cornerback Kyle Arrington looked especially lost, giving up a 66-yard reception to DeAndre Hopkins in the fourth quarter.
Fortunately, the Patriots were eventually able to get some pressure on Houston quarterback Case Keenum. He was sacked only once, by nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, but pressure led to Keenum’s only interception, snagged by cornerback Logan Ryan. To Keenum’s credit, he did an excellent job using his feet to escape the rush and he made several spectacular throws outside of the pocket, but he ultimately completed only 50 percent of his passes (15-for-30).
New England survived to win this game in spite of the defense allowing both a 100-yard rusher and a 100-yard receiver. Running back Ben Tate gained 102 yards on 22 carries with three touchdowns while wide receiver Andre Johnson gained 121 yards on eight catches. During the game, Johnson became the 15th receiver in NFL history to catch 900 passes in his career. He is the second-fastest player, behind Marvin Harrison of the Indianapolis Colts, to reach that mark.
Special Teams Grade: A-
Houston kick returner Keshawn Martin returned Gostkowski’s opening kickoff 50 yards to the Houston 44-yard line, but that was the only bad play made all day by the New England special teams. Gostkowski missed a 55-yard field goal in the first half, but he made a pair of 53-yard field goals in the fourth quarter – the first one tying the game and the second one providing New England with its final margin of victory.
Patriots kick returner Josh Boyce had an excellent return for 41 yards to the New England 45-yard line that set up the team’s first touchdown drive. Late in the first half, punter Ryan Allen couldn’t quite keep the ball out of the end zone even though no one was back to receive the kick, but his final punt of the game pinned the Texans on their own five-yard line, severely inhibiting their chances for a comeback drive.
Coaching Grade: A
In the week leading up to the game, head coach Bill Belichick constantly reminded his squad that this Houston Texans team, in spite of its 2-9 record going into the game, was not that much different than the one that won the AFC South last year with a 12-4 record. By keeping their turnovers to a minimum, the Texans were able to play a competitive game against a quality opponent, but Belichick was able to keep his team focused enough to pull out the victory.
Belichick’s decision to bench Ridley appeared to motivate the rest of the running back corps, who frequently carried the ball with two hands while running into the interior of the Houston defense. Ridley was on the sideline in street clothes during the game, but it remains to be seen if he will get on the field again.
One notable statistic for the game: The Patriots did not commit a single penalty. Overall, New England made very few mistakes in this game, and that usually can be attributed to good coaching.
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Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.