5 takeaways from the Patriots’ uninspiring performance against the Houston Texans

The offense might be hopeless, and the AFC is keeping the pressure on late in the season.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady kneels after a play during the second half Sunday.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady kneels after a play during the second half Sunday. –David J. Phillip/AP Photo

COMMENTARY

Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 28-22 loss to the Texans, a disappointing defeat in which Bill Belichick’s team surely wasn’t as competitive as the final score might suggest…

THE OFFENSE MIGHT BE HOPELESS

It’s time to worry.

To this point, the struggles could be excused away. The offensive line was lacking a true left tackle. The running game couldn’t find consistency. The operation was still adjusting to life without Rob Gronkowski. There were injuries among the receiving corps, forcing rookies into prominent spots. All along the way, there were rationales available to help explain why the Patriots offense hadn’t been able to establish an identity, and reasons to think that when they found the fix they’d figure it out.

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After Sunday, though, it’s time to worry that those fixes aren’t coming.

The Patriots needed to prove something against the Texans on Sunday night, against a defense that had yielded a passer rating of 101 to its opponents over the first 11 weeks, with stats also declaring it one of the worst in game-turning situations. They didn’t need to be perfect. At the least, they just needed to look proficient.

Instead, they were mostly pathetic.

After the 11 before him posted an average passer rating befitting a Pro Bowler, Tom Brady spent most of the night with his rating in a realm about 40 points lower. Only two touchdown passes in the final three minutes, after the score was 28-9, kept Brady from a third straight game in which his rating finished sub-75. Still, the last time he posted a passer rating in triple digits was at Washington, way back in Week 5.

Brady salvaged some measure of statistical respectability with a pair of second-half touchdown passes to James White, and another to Julian Edelman with 50 seconds remaining, but he still completed only 24 of 47 passes — making Sunday the fourth time in five contests that the quarterback has connected on fewer than 56 percent of his passing attempts. Over that span, Brady is 117 for 213, a clip of 55.3 percent.

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Sunday’s failure came with Isaiah Wynn at left tackle. With the running game seeing some early success before being somewhat abandoned. With the tight ends, receivers, and running backs as collectively healthy as they’ve been all season. Yet — don’t let the final score and garbage-time yardage fool you — it still didn’t work.

And now there should be legitimate worry about whether it ever will.

DID THE TEXANS DISCOVER THE BLUEPRINT?

As disappointing as the performance of the Patriots’ offense was, the defense should hardly be absolved of blame. And what’s troubling on that side of scrimmage is the thought that the Texans may have given future foes a blueprint on how to attack the Pats.

Houston established control of the game by scoring touchdowns on consecutive possessions that bridged the first and second quarters, both of which were keyed by Deshaun Watson throwing to his backs and tight ends. Those were particularly appealing targets because they capitalized on mismatches that pressed the Patriots linebackers to handle duties in coverage. On the first series, a short pass to running back Carlos Hyde made third down manageable. Then on the subsequent play, Watson slung a pass to another back, Duke Johnson, who scooted by Kyle Van Noy and into the end zone.

Next time they got the ball, the Texans marched for another score. Of the 88 yards they gained, 72 were picked up via the pass — and only 13 of those yards were collected by receivers. Johnson had a couple of catches, as did tight end Darren Fells, who opened the series with a 10-yard grab and capped it with a 14-yard hookup on which he was uncovered and almost untouched as he charged past the goal line.

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Eventually, the Patriots adjusted, but by then the damage had been done. And the adjustments also softened things up enough for Watson to begin using his receivers more, and throwing down the field like few have done against the Pats this season. New England missed Jason McCourty in this one, with Jonathan Jones burnt a few times on the score that turned a 14-3 game into a 21-3 game, and in the end the Texans QB finished with a passer rating of 140.7 thanks to a 72 percent completion rate and three touchdowns.

Considering the Pats had allowed four passing touchdowns all season, and the Texans did that in a night, Watson and Bill O’Brien might’ve also put on film some evidence of exactly where the Patriots defense is most vulnerable.

TURNOVERS ARE DRYING UP

At the peak of the defense’s performance this season, the unit was forcing turnovers at a rate so ridiculous that it was obviously unsustainable. It prompted questions about whether the Patriots could still dominate the game on that side of the ball without regularly and repeatedly taking it away from the enemy.

Sunday’s result validates the concerns behind that question. The Texans took care of the ball, and they became the first team this season to escape a contest against the Patriots without committing a turnover. Before the bye, New England forced multiple turnovers in seven of nine tilts, but in the three games since they’ve taken the ball away just twice.

Against the Eagles and Cowboys they surrendered a single touchdown and four field goals, and against the Texans they forced four three-and-out punts in nine legitimate possessions. However, they also allowed Houston to convert six of 11 third-down tries, and three of three red-zone opportunities into touchdowns.

They couldn’t get the ball away from the Texans, couldn’t get them off the field consistently, and couldn’t keep them out of the red zone. For now, it’s an aberration — but none of those things are going to get easier with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs coming to town next.

HARRY GETS BURIED

The night started with N’Keal Harry seeming to frustrate the Texans secondary by using his big body to block on a couple of early running plays. But then Harry didn’t use his body or his strength to seal off a defender on a slant pass that was accordingly intercepted.

And that was effectively where Harry’s night ended.

After the rookie allowed cornerback Bradley Roby to get around him he wasn’t targeted again the rest of the night, and he really didn’t even see the field. While Edelman was thrown to 12 times, Jakobi Meyers seven times, Phillip Dorsett six times, and Mohamed Sanu five times, Harry appeared to pay the consequences for a pivotal mistake that led to the Texans’ first score. Had the pass been broken up and fell incomplete, perhaps the response would have been different — but as it was, it looked as though the Patriots made an instant determination that one play was enough.

In an important game, with the offense struggling to find itself, burying Harry after that gave off a signal that New England didn’t feel it could trust its first-round pick. Whether that decision belonged to Belichick, or Josh McDaniels, or even Brady, it really doesn’t matter. When the leash is that short, there’s a reason. And it’s probably a reason that goes beyond one rough play.

AFC KEEPS THE PRESSURE ON

When the Patriots took the field for the nightcap of another NFL Sunday, they did so with some extra pressure — because all the teams in pursuit of them had already handled their business in Week 13 and kept New England in a position where its margin for error is minimal.

When the Ravens got a buzzer-beating field goal to fell the 49ers, and extend their winning streak to eight, it kept Baltimore in a position where it was poised to pounce on the top spot in the conference standings as soon as the Patriots slipped up. Both teams are now 10-2, but the Ravens own the tiebreaker by virtue of their head-to-head win last month.

All of a sudden, particularly with the way the Pats appear to be trending, it may be time to start worrying about tiebreakers with the teams behind them, too. The Chiefs obliterated the Raiders on Sunday, so they’ll come to Foxborough next weekend with a record of 8-4. Should they win at Gillette Stadium, they’ll pull within a game of the Pats, with the head-to-head advantage. The Texans, now 8-4, would be positioned similarly — and Houston has defeated both New England and Kansas City.

Oh, and the conference isn’t the only place the Pats find themselves in a dogfight. Their division lead is down to just a single game because the Bills went into Dallas and won on Thanksgiving. Buffalo is 9-3, and visits New England in Week 16. Win that one, and the AFC East could come down to the better divisional record, or perhaps the better record against common opponents.

The ray of hope for the Pats might be that the Ravens and Bills play each other next Sunday — meaning that, unless there’s a tie, either the biggest threat in the conference or the division is due to incur a loss.