- So much for the path. So much for the math. Any hope, born from last Sunday’s satisfying win over the Ravens, that the Patriots could get back into the playoff mix evaporated Sunday against a two-win Texans team that dominated in the first half and held on in the second as one more New England comeback bid fell short. The Patriots defense was dismantled by the great Deshaun Watson, and its offense, despite a career day from Damiere Byrd, proved again that it doesn’t have the personnel capable of succeeding once it falls behind. They can compete with anyone (though a monsoon always helps that cause) and they can lose to anyone. Every game from here on out will be an unpredictable adventure, but this we do know for sure: Their 11-year run of making the playoffs is coming to an end. They’re just not capable of winning the five of six – or running the table – that will be necessary to make the postseason. It’s too much to ask.
- The Patriots had some good things happen. A few. Just not enough. The defense, after getting shredded by Watson in the first half, held the Texans to a pair of field goals in the second half. Byrd (six catches, 132 yards, and the Patriots’ first receiving touchdown by a wide receiver this season) was stellar, a week after not having one ball thrown his way. Damien Harris ran for a touchdown before Josh McDaniels apparently forgot he was active for the game. Cam Newton threw for 365 yards and didn’t turn it over. And despite the hideous first half, the Patriots had a shot of at least tying it at the end, a sign that they don’t quit.
- But ultimately, it was another frustrating Sunday, the kind that hasn’t come around too often in the previous two decades but is becoming increasingly familiar. The Patriots are 10-3 all-time against the Texans, but Houston has won the last two, jumping to a 28-9 lead last year in a 28-22 win and exposing the weaknesses in the Patriots’ offense (Tom Brady was in a particularly grouchy mood after that one). The frustrations were different this Sunday: Strange play-calling (the Patriots ran just 24 times for 86 yards against the league’s worst run defense, with Newton gaining just six yards on the ground), passing on first down early when they should have been trying to establish the run, and tackling that suggested the defensive backs thought this was actually a flag football game.
- I cannot recall the last time a quarterback made it look as easy against a Patriots defense as Watson did in the first half. Nick Foles in Super Bowl LII, maybe? I’m only being semi-facetious. The Patriots allowed just one 300-yard passing performance last season (Miami’s Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 17) and none this season entering Sunday’s game. (Seattle’s Russell Wilson hit them for a high of 288 yards in Week 2). Watson racked up 241 passing yards in the first half alone and added 30 more yards on the ground, accounting for 271 of the Texans’ 274 total yards and three total TDs. If there’s anyone outside of Baltimore that thinks Lamar Jackson is better than Watson, they haven’t paid attention the past two weeks.
- Did you see that clip a couple of weeks ago of Colts quarterback Philip Rivers tripping and falling flat on his back while attempting to “tackle” a defender returning an interception? The Patriots’ tackling in the first half seemed to be an homage to that. On back to back plays in the second quarter, Texans tight end Pharaoh Brown stiff-armed Jon Jones to the turf, then Will Fuller broke free from J.C. Jackson’s attempt to tackle him by his shoelaces. The most embarrassing defensive play occurred when Watson left treadmarks on Devin McCourty on his second quarter touchdown charge. It wasn’t quite Earl Campbell/Isaiah Robertson stuff (look it up, kids), but it was one that is going to make McCourty – usually a stout tackler — cringe in the film room.
- Another frustration: It started so well, and then it’s almost as if the Patriots game plan deliberately went away from what was working. James White got involved right away, taking a Newton screen pass 34 yards on the second play from scrimmage. It mystifies me why Josh McDaniels doesn’t make an effort to involve him more. He hasn’t had more than 12 touches in a game all season, with just two last week against Baltimore and a low of one in the Week 7 blowout loss to the Niners. He ended up with 11 Sunday, contributing 83 total yards. I suspect his workload increased only because Rex Burkhead went down with a knee injury in the second half. But McDaniels still underutilized Harris, and it’s inexplicable why there aren’t more designed runs for Newton.
- The Patriots’ first drive was one of their most impressive of the season, covering 84 yards on 10 plays. Newton hit Byrd for 17 yards immediately after White’s nifty catch and run. Burkhead converted a 3rd and 1 as the upback with White behind him, a new wrinkle there. And Harris picked up 23 hard-fought yards on five carries on the drive. It was Harris that did the touchdown honors, scoring from 9 yards out thanks in part to a path-clearing destructive block on J.J. Watt by Jakobi Meyers.
- Harris followed fullback Jakob Johnson on his 9-yard touchdown run. Johnson didn’t exactly blow a hole open in the Texans defense for Harris to run through – he was more of an obstruction than a blocker when encountering Texans defensive back Vernon Hargreaves III – but he is getting better. It goes unrecognized nationally how much the loss of James Develin affected the Patriots.
- Watson doesn’t have the reputation as being one of the elite quarterbacks when it comes to accuracy, but maybe that’s not fair. He did begin Sunday 10th in the league in completion percentage (68.1), ahead of the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, and Bucs GM/QB Tom Brady. And he could not have been more precise on the Texans’ touchdown drive that tied it at 7 in the first quarter, especially on a 44-yard completion to Brandin Cooks and a 3-yard TD pass to Randall Cobb at the back of the end zone. That set the tone for an exceptional performance all day.
- So: 4-6. Two games under .500 with six to play. Fewer wins than nine AFC teams. The playoffs aren’t happening. So what do you want to see the rest of the way? Improvement and enhanced roles for the players that will be part of the next excellent Patriots team: Meyers, Harris, and Kyle Dugger for starters. Newton should remain the starting quarterback no matter what; I still think there’s a decent chance he’s the guy next season, though all bets are off if the Niners part ways with Jimmy Garoppolo. A smart decision once in a while from Gunnar Olszewski on kick returns would be cool. And maybe another encouraging win or two – spoiling some things for the Bills in Week 16 might be temporarily fun. All of that seems reasonable. Asking for much more than that this year is not.
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