Brady has won all sorts of ways en route to the top of the NFL’s all-time wins list – but there haven’t been many instances where the quarterback carried the day more than he did during career victory No. 210.
His defense wasn’t great, allowing a rookie-led Texans offense to score 33 points, compile 23 first downs, and rack up 417 yards of offense. His offensive line was suspect, the absence of right tackle Marcus Cannon showing itself regularly against Houston’s ferocious defensive front. His receiving corps remained limited by injuries, even with the return of Danny Amendola. And the Texans’ familiarity with the Patriots’ way of doing things, as usual, made life difficult for New England’s quarterback.
Yet at the end of the day, Brady’s line looked like this: 25-for-35, 378 yards, five touchdowns, zero interceptions – and a 75-yard game-winning drive that required a couple of lengthy third-down conversions and ultimately a 25-yard, pinpoint, back-foot, anticipatory throw to Cooks with 23 seconds on the clock. Indicative of the heat he was under for most of the afternoon, Brady dealt with second and 20 on that final series, as well as third-and-12 and third-and-18. There was a holding penalty, a sack, and a fumble interspersed as interference, and on his final throw Brady admitted he couldn’t even see Cooks come down with the ball except on the scoreboard. Rightfully so, considering nothing was clean Sunday for the Patriots. Especially in a stagnant fourth quarter.
Except the quarterback.
After two underwhelming weeks from a production standpoint, Cooks finally made his big splash for the Pats, finishing with five catches for 131 yards and, of course, the game-winning score.
He also had another score earlier, and what might’ve most encouraging about his breakout performance is the way he showed up with impactful plays in major moments. His first catch of the day went for 44 yards with the Pats facing third and 13 on their opening drives. On the first drive of the second half he crossed the middle of the field, squeezed a Brady throw in stride, then kicked on the afterburners and went 42 yards for his first TD as a Patriot.
That was his last catch until an 18-yarder on the final drive, that one moving the Patriots into Texans territory with 93 seconds to play. With that, New England’s final drive seemed to have a legitimate chance, and the Gillette Stadium sellout had begun to see the difference-making abilities their coach was seeking when he sent a first-round pick to New Orleans for his No. 1 receiver.
WATSON WAS A MAJOR ISSUE
With five minutes to go in regulation, and the Texans facing 1st and 20 from their own 23, the Patriots pushed DeShaun Watson deep into his pocket. They had bodies around him. They got hands on him. They had several chances to drop him in the backfield, force the Texans into conservation mode, and give Tom Brady’s a chance to take over with good field position needing only a field goal.
Instead, Watson escaped. He shrugged off the bodies around him, shuffled his way to open space, and eventually lobbed a pass to a wide-open D’Onta Freeman for a 31-gain up the right side. With that the Texans had the field position they needed to salt away the clock, and the fresh set of downs that facilitated their march to the field goal that forced the Patriots to score a field goal on their final possession.
That play was indicative of the trouble the rookie quarterback gave the Pats throughout the afternoon, his elusiveness consistently extending plays and creating challenges that New England struggled to contain, especially on third down. He finished 22 of 33 for 301 yards and two scores, and also added 41 yards rushing, but his athleticism has to raise questions about whether the Pats’ front seven has enough speed to deal with quarterbacks of his ilk. Aside from maybe Trey Flowers, quickness is not a particular strength of anyone among this group of linemen or linebackers, and Watson’s success could foreshadow troubles to come – especially with Cam Newton due in Foxborough next Sunday.
A week after a reduction in his playing time led to speculation about his long- and short-term future with the Patriots, Malcolm Butler started at cornerback – and then saw Sunday’s proceedings reassure his value in the secondary.
Eric Rowe was out with a groin injury, while after a strong showing against the Saints, Jonathan Jones was toasted for a touchdown, and the Texans targeted New England’s safeties when they were pressed into coverage. Stephon Gilmore had his first interception for the Pats, and did a respectable job (with some help) in covering star wideout DeAndre Hopkins, but he did temporarily leave the field with dehydration. Even with Houston’s limited offensive capacity, that predicament would have been scary if the Pats didn’t have Butler to rely on, and playing at a better level than he had over the first two weeks.
While it seemed like a struggle at times, and was certainly in doubt down to the final ticks of the clock, a game like Sunday’s has to be considered encouraging for the Patriots because it was a tight affair from start to finish, and one that required New England to deliver situationally to put themselves in position to steal victory in the end.
Ryan Allen didn’t punt well early, but a couple of well-covered boomers help the Pats with field position in the second half. The defense came up with a big stop on third and 1 during the Texans’ penultimate possession, holding Houston to a field goal while leaving Brady with enough time to take advantage. Then the offense – including a tackle-breaking conversion from Rob Gronkowski – made all the necessary plays on the game-winning march.
“We were in a lot of situational football in that game, on offense, defense, and special teams,” coach Bill Belichick said afterward. “Obviously you’d like to play better so it doesn’t come down to the final play, but look, it’s the National Football League. The Texans are an outstanding team and that’s what it’s going to take to beat them. To play 60 minutes and make the plays you’ve to make at the end to win.”