We've been waiting all season for the New England Patriots to figure things out offensively, but it didn't happen in Sunday night's matchup with the Texans, as Houston built a big lead early and hung on to win, 28-22.
It made sense that they'd struggle a bit early in the year, what with Rob Gronkowski retiring and Josh Gordon working his way back and Antonio Brown only arriving a week into the season. It made sense that they'd struggle once Gordon got injured and Brown got released and the offensive line got banged up. But we're 12 games into the season now, and with the defense no longer creating turnovers and scores at an unheard-of rate, we're beginning to see the cracks in this New England offense. They managed to win each of their past two games while scoring only 30 points combined, but that was not nearly enough in a muted performance against the Texans.
The Pats have seen their running game fall apart amid injuries to their offensive line and their top two fullbacks. They have seen their deep passing game disappear without Gronkowski. And even their quick-strike game, once unstoppable, appears to be anything but. Sure, the Patriots tacked on two garbage time(-ish) touchdowns, but Houston was sitting in a conservative shell and letting Brady have completions that weren't available early in the game.
Week 13 is almost in the books and there's a lot to go over. Fortunately Will Brinson, John Breech, Ryan Wilson and Sean Wagner-McGough are here to break everything down on the Pick Six Podcast. Listen below and be sure to subscribe right here for daily NFL goodness fired into your eardrums.
The Pats are still 10-2 and they appear to be on their way to a first-round bye in the playoffs. But they don't look invincible, or anything near that right now. The Texans may not be better than the Patriots overall, but they sure looked like they were on Sunday night. This was a commanding performance from a team that was firing on all cylinders, bouncing back from a tough first drive on both sides of the ball to completely control the rest of the game.
Deshaun Watson sparkled all night long, completing 18 of 25 passes for 234 yards and three scores. He added a receiving score for good measure, on a spectacularly-designed option play that saw three different Texans touch the ball before Watson ended up in the end zone. (A play that was apparently designed by Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, and Duke Johnson.) He was calm and measured in the pocket, taking the checkdowns available to him and trusting his teammates to make hay after the catch, and then hitting deep balls over the top once the defense dropped down into the box. It was about as good a quarterbacking performance against an elite defense as you will see all season -- nearly on par with what Lamar Jackson did against the Pats a few weeks ago.
The Texans finally put Duke Johnson to good use, turning the third-round pick they sent to the Cleveland Browns for his services into 90 total yards and a score. They got DeAndre Hopkins to beat Stephon Gilmore on the same slant route three different times. They got everybody involved, and in a host of different ways. They even appeared to win the coaching matchup, with Bill O'Brien and Romeo Crennel besting Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels, respectively.
It's difficult to imagine the night having gone much better for Houston, in a game that was not quite as close as the 28-22 final score.
Why the Texans won
They came out with an absolutely perfect game-plan to take advantage of the one weakness the Patriots have defensively: their linebackers can be beaten by pass-catching running backs. Duke Johnson was heavily involved early on, and ended up reaching double-digit touches for the first time since Week 1. He beat Kyle Van Noy in coverage for a touchdown, and hauled in four more passes beyond that. Johnson also ran well up the middle once the Pats began spying him with Jamie Collins in the passing game.
The Texans used tight formations and multiple players in the backfield to confuse New England's linebackers regarding their assignments, and both Darren Fells and Jordan Akins popped open for chunk gains. Then Watson just started picking on Jonathan Jones, beating him for touchdowns on back-to-back throws after the first of them was overturned on replay. And DeAndre Hopkins started getting going. Everything was cooking for the Texans all night.
Why the Patriots lost
They looked absolutely lost on both sides of the ball, but especially on offense. Tom Brady appeared to be under immediate pressure for much of the evening, and on the occasions where he wasn't, none of his receivers could manage to shake free of the Texans' coverage. Houston defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel used a cornerback to cover pass-catching running back James White for most of the evening, and it rendered him ineffective until it was too late.
Julian Edelman had two huge third-down catches on the Pats' opening drive, but was extremely quiet for the rest of the night. Phillip Dorsett was invisible. Jakobi Meyers made a couple plays, but his best one of the night was called back for offensive pass interference. N'Keal Harry let Bradley Roby run a route for him and it resulted in a pick. Neither Sony Michel nor Rex Burkhead made any impact at all. This is an offense that is deep in a funk.
It's rare that the turning point of an NFL game is an incomplete pass. Usually when it is, it's because that incomplete pass resulted in a huge stand for the defense. That was not the case in this game.
Early in the second quarter, with the Texans holding a 7-3 lead, Patriots linebacker John Simon beat tight end Darren Fells around the edge. Simon got his hands on Deshaun Watson and spun him to the ground ... only he didn't actually spin him to the ground. Watson stayed on his feet, scampered away from pressure, and threw the ball out of bounds.
Just like that, the Texans had avoided disaster. Five plays later, they found the end zone, with Watson hitting Fells leaking out of the backfield on a creatively-designed play out of a full house formation. All of a sudden the Texans had a 14-3 lead, which proved to be insurmountable. And it all began with an incomplete pass.
Play of the game
There were a bunch of pretty cool plays to choose from, but yeah, we're gonna have to go with this.
That's a fake jet sweep with an inside zone hand-off to the running back, who hands it off to the wide receiver, who lined up as an H-back and who then runs the option with the quarterback, flipping him the ball and watching him walk into the end zone for his fourth score of the night. That's not something you see every day.
Oh, and it was cooked up by the players involved during their bye week.
The Texans push their record to 8-4 with this victory, and hang onto their one-game lead in the AFC South. They also keep pace with the Kansas City Chiefs in the race for the No. 3 seed in the AFC by matching their 8-4 record. The Texans host Drew Lock and the Broncos at NRG Stadium next Sunday.
New England drops to 10-2 with the loss, and by virtue of the tiebreaker, also falls down to the No. 2 seed in the AFC, behind the Ravens. The Pats are now just one game ahead of the Bills for the AFC East lead. The Pats host the Chiefs at Gillette Stadium next Sunday afternoon in a game that will have enormous playoff implications.