The Patriots’ 34-31 tractor pull of a win over the Texans Sunday afternoon in Houston was a late-season, grind-it-out victory that does nothing for New England’s BCS chances, but allows the Patriots to tear another day off the calendar while staying entrenched in that No. 2 spot in the AFC playoff picture.
In truth, when NFL Films compiles the season in review on the 2013 Patriots, you’ll probably be inclined to fast forward through one. The Pats fell behind by 10 and had to play a near-perfect second half offensively just to keep up with the Texans (who looked for all the world like they were playing their Super Bowl against the Patriots for the second straight year) down the stretch. They couldn’t do much when it came to stopping Houston’s ground game, and had another alarmingly slow start on both sides of the ball.
But in the end, a late scoring flurry -- which included points on their first five possessions of the second half, topped off by a 53-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski to make it 34-31 lead with 3:12 left in regulation -- was enough to lift the Patriots to 9-3 and give the Texans their 10th straight loss.
“It ended up being a dogfight for us, but we found a way to pull it out,” said quarterback Tom Brady, who finished 29-for-41 for 371 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. “I think that’s the most important thing -- no matter what the situation, if you’re ahead late, if you’re behind late, you’ve got to figure out a way to win it at the end.”
In a season full of dogfights, Brady and the Patriots have usually found a way to pull it out. Sunday marked the ninth time this season the Patriots saw a game decided by seven points or less, and the Patriots are 6-3 in those games. (Over the last decade, the only other time New England played as many games decided by a touchdown or less was 2006, when the Patriots saw nine of their 19 games -- regular season and postseason -- finish in such narrow fashion. Of course, the 2013 New England roster has at least four more regular-season games and at least one playoff game still to come.)
While it won’t win them favor when it comes to the rest of the NFL -- the Patriots barely beat who? -- finding a way to win when you are less than your best is a hallmark of good team.
“It just came down to a couple plays, and once again, I’m proud of our guys for making the plays they needed to make. We got good contributions from all three units,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
Of course, it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing contest of the season. The Patriots were ragged early in all three phases of the game. Without wide receiver Aaron Dobson and running back Stevan Ridley (both were inactive) and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (he went down in the first half), there were moments when the Patriots had to adjust on the fly. Some poor coverage work on the kickoff team and a first-half interception thrown by Brady played a role in setting up the Texans with some spectacular field position in the early going.
But New England got terrific individual efforts from Rob Gronkowski (six catches, 127 yards, one touchdown) and Julian Edelman (nine catches, 101 yards). Ridley was inactive for the game -- a healthy scratch in the wake of his ball-security issues -- but LeGarrette Blount stepped in and had 12 carries for 44 yards and a touchdown. And the offensive line was able to keep Houston’s J.J. Watt at bay, snapping his sack streak at five games and only allowing one Texans sack on the afternoon.
“[There are] certainly a lot of things we need to work on, we need to do better,” Belichick added. “But overall, I’m proud of the team for the way they hung in there and made the plays they needed to make at the end.”
Now, with four games to go, and the Broncos winning in Kansas City and moving to 10-2, it appears New England is close to being locked into the No. 2 spot in the AFC. While the Colts and Bengals are a game back at 8-4, the Patriots have one of the easiest remaining schedules, with the combined record of their opponents at 20-28. (The only apparent roadblock to them running the table and finishing 13-3 is a Dec. 22 date in Baltimore against the occasionally feisty Ravens.)
For the Patriots, the first meaningful steps toward getting to North Jersey and the Super Bowl are being taken now. It’s a journey that will take the better part of the next two months. As we saw Sunday in Houston, not all the steps will be perfect, but the only thing that really matters is that they’re continuing to go forward. Through 11 games, one thing is clear: Weaknesses and all, they’re headed in the right direction.
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots on Sunday.
THEY ARE HAVING ISSUES WHEN IT COMES TO STOPPING THE RUN
Some of the issues are scheme-based, some of it is game-planning (it made sense for the Patriots to allow the Broncos to run at will in the second half last week) and some are personnel issues (it’s now evident the Patriots really miss big bodies up front like Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly). But Sunday, it was increasingly evident that the New England run defense is an issue. The Texans came into the game with just two rushing touchdowns on the season, but tacked three on the board on Sunday, all of which came from backup running back Ben Tate. (Starter Arian Foster is out for the year.) In all, the Texans ran for 121 yards, which actually represents a statistical improvement for New England -- it was allowing 139.7 rushing yards per game coming into the contest. There are still plenty of concerns for this team going forward, and this is chief among them.
STEPHEN GOSTKOWSKI IS HAVING A GREAT YEAR
The kicker delivered a pair of 53-yard field goals, one of which was the clincher with 3:12 remaining in regulation, to help lift the Patriots. Gostkowski is having perhaps the best season of an already impressive career -- he’s now 28-for-30 in 2013. (He missed a 55-yarder in the first half, but given the fact that he hit two from 50-plus, we won’t hold the miss against him.) His work against the Texans late is another indication that he has become one of the most dependable kickers in the league this year, particularly late: He now has one kick late that proved to be the difference (Sunday against the Texans), one that forced overtime (an October loss to the Jets) and two game-winners (in OT against the Broncos and in the opener against the Bills). A good year for Gostkowski, who should get Pro Bowl consideration.
NO ONE IS QUITE SURE WHAT TO THINK OF THE RUNNING BACK SITUATION
Stevan Ridley, who has fumbled four times this year, was a healthy scratch against the Texans on Sunday, heightening speculation that his fumble issues have hit a tipping point. (He was on the sidelines for the game in shorts and sweats, and spent much of the afternoon holding on to a football.) In his place, the Patriots leaned heavily on LeGarrette Blount as the feature back, and the big fella ran for 44 yards on 12 carries and added a touchdown for measure. New England also went with a heavy dose of Shane Vereen, who ended with 10 carries and 38 yards to go along with 5 catches for 37 yards and a receiving touchdown. (For what it’s worth, Vereen averaged five yards every time he touched the ball Sunday. It was short of his numbers against the Texans last season -- he averaged 8.2 yards per touch in his two games against the Texans last year -- but still impressive.) As for Ridley’s situation, Belichick wasn’t in an expansive mood when he was asked why the back was inactive on Sunday: “Was there any reason why? Because there was 46 other players active ahead of him.” OK then.
JULIAN EDELMAN SHOULD BE A HOTLY PURSUED FREE AGENT THIS OFFSEASON
It seems remarkable to think that Edelman was a forgotten piece of the free-agent shuffle this offseason -- he made one visit with the Giants, but ended up returned to the Patriots for relatively short money. This season, he has rushed into the offensive void and become one of the most important parts of the New England passing game. On Sunday against the Texans, he had nine catches for 101 yards -- his third game this season with at least 100 yards receiving. On the year, he has 70 catches for 711 yards and four touchdowns, and if he stays healthy, he’s on pace to finish the year with 93 catches. That would represent a quantum leap from what’s been able to do to this point in his career (his previous career high was 37 receptions as a rookie in 2009), and would set him up nicely as he heads into the offseason as a free agent. One thing for sure is that he’s done as much as he can to cash in this season when it comes to maximizing the deal he signed this past offseason: with his performance on Sunday, according to Brian McIntyre of the always indispensible Mac’s Football Blog, Edelman has now earned all $250,000 of his incentives tied to receptions this season.
J.J. WATT IS AS GOOD A DEFENSIVE LINEMAN AS THEY’LL FACE ALL SEASON
At first glance, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year was as good as advertised. An overwhelming presence along Houston’s defensive front, his high motor allowed him to make plays that appeared to be unmakeable for several other defensive linemen. He bounced around for much of the afternoon, working usually along the interior and trying to find soft spots in the New England offensive line. He was able to do an excellent job in pursuit when it came to chasing down running backs (the Patriots appeared to try and run away from him as often as possible), and while was able to hit Brady three times, his five-game sack streak was broken. He ended the game with five tackles (all solo) and three quarterback hits. In three games against New England, Watt now has 0.5 sacks, which is as close as anyone is going to get when it comes to slowing him down. (While Watt was conciliatory toward the Patriots after the game, his fellow defensive lineman Antonio Smith wasn’t as gracious. He wondered aloud about the Patriots possibly stealing signals, saying it was “miraculous” they were able to make the adjustments that they did in the second half and intimating New England was spying on the Texans.)
THEIR THIRD-QUARTER WOES ARE A THING OF THE PAST
The third-quarter issues that were bedeviling the team over the first half of the season now appear to be over, as New England has outscored its last five opponents by a 62-28 margin over the last five weeks. That includes a 14-7 edge on Sunday against the Texans, a team that had serious third-quarter issues of their own coming into Sunday’s game -- Houston’s third-quarter touchdown Sunday broke a three-game streak where the Texans weren’t able to get the ball in the end zone between the end of the second and start of the fourth quarter. One of the things that several Patriots players discussed in the wake of last week’s win over the Broncos is the fact that they spend practice time repping the start of the third quarter -- that work has appeared to play off. (Next thing for them to work on? Offensive sluggishness in the first half. Over the last four games, they’ve been outscored over the first two quarters by a 61-34 margin, and that includes the 24 first-half points they had against the Steelers. You can dig yourself out of that kind of hole against many teams, but when it comes to the postseason, creating that sort of deficit in the early going is tough to overcome.)
THEY’RE PLAYING DISCIPLINED FOOTBALL
Sunday marked the second time all season the Patriots went without a penalty -- their first came in an October loss to the Bengals. New England was already one of the least penalized teams in the NFL coming into this weekend (their 51 penalties were 29th in the league, while the 493 penalty yards was 26th), but the fact the Patriots didn’t get called for an infraction will likely improve the numbers even more. In the context of this conversation, it’s worth noting that when measured over the first 12 games of the season, the penalties and penalty yardage assessed on the Patriots over the last three seasons has decreased dramatically. (Through 12 games in 2012, the Patriots had 73 penalties for 624 penalty yards. In 2011, through 12 games, he had 70 penalties and 611 penalty yards.) As alert Tweeter @DeeepThreat points out, part of that is due to the fact that New England has had fewer plays on both sides of the ball to this point, but it’s also a sign that the Patriots are playing smarter, more disciplined football, and should be recognized for that.
THERE’S A ROLE IN THE OFFENSE FOR THE FULLBACK
James Develin? James Develin. The fullback saw a ton of reps on Sunday against the Texans, and came away with two big plays: his first was a 1-yard touchdown run on New England’s first drive of the second half, one that saw him keep his legs pumping as he pushed into the end zone after multiple attempts. He added another rushing attempt (a 3-yard gain in the second quarter), but his second big play came when he delivered a great block to help pave the way for a Blount touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Patriots haven’t utilized a full-time fullback since Heath Evans in 2008, but with Michael Hoomananwanui on the shelf and the uncertain situation around Ridley, Develin could be in line for more snaps going forward.
THE AFC EAST IS DONE
With their win over the Texans (combined with the Dolphins victory against the Jets), the Patriots have a three-game lead on Miami and a four-game lead on New York with four games to play. They could make it official next week if they beat the Browns and the Dolphins lose at the Steelers, an eminently reasonable scenario given the way the season has played out to this point. When they pull it off, it would be the 11th division title in the last 13 seasons for the Patriots.