HOUSTON - There are at least 1,000 ways to win a football game, and the New England Patriots obviously intend on sampling every one.
Yesterday they showed 70,719 at Reliant Stadium that you can win despite committing three turnovers, two of which led to touchdowns for the opponent, and scoring only one touchdown in six trips inside the 20. The record crowd for a pro football game (excluding Super Bowl VII) in Houston learned that you’re not required to concede victory when you lose an overtime coin toss. New England proved that all hope doesn’t have to be lost simply because the game’s most dependable clutch kicker has his potential-game-ending kick blocked or because his struggling best friend of a punter boots one 31 yards, giving the other team possession at your 35-yard line in sudden death.
The Houston Texans, in their second season, are still crafting their brand of football. The Patriots have theirs. It’s called winning. Anywhere, any way.
Though they trailed by 7 with 3 minutes to play and looked done several times in overtime, the Patriots did it again. Adam Vinatieri’s 28-yard field goal with 41 seconds remaining in the extra period gave them a 23-20 win. New England has won seven straight games heading into Sunday’s game at 9-2 Indianapolis.
“We talk a lot on our team about hanging in there, about playing 60 minutes of football. Today it was 74 or 73,” said Bill Belichick, who has guided the Patriots to their first 9-2 start in franchise history. “As I told the team, I didn’t think we played particularly well, but we have a lot of tough guys in that locker room, and a lot of guys stepped up and made big plays at key times.”
“We found a way to get it done,” Vinatieri said. “There were a lot of mistakes and dumb things that happened in this game. Getting a win and getting out of here is a good thing.”
The Patriots picked the perfect times to be at their best and the wrong times to be at their worst. The Patriots had 29 first downs to Houston’s 11. They outgained the Texans, 472-169, running 34 more offensive plays. But the Patriots also held a slight edge in turnovers, 3-2, and twice settled for field goals in goal-to-go situations. “You look at the numbers, and you would think we killed them,” inactive receiver Troy Brown said. “It’s hard to win when you have turnovers. They put the points on the board because of those turnovers, and we were lucky to get the win.”
You know what they say about luck. The prime opportunity for the Patriots to make good on their preparation came with 3:04 remaining and the Texans leading, 20-13, after Kris Brown’s 31-yard field goal, one set up by Ramon Walker’s blocked punt.
On third and 10 from his 33, Tom Brady scrambled around and found Daniel Graham - the same kid who last week against Dallas and earlier in this game couldn’t catch a cold in a New England November - for a 33-yard gain. Kevin Faulk then took a screen pass 21 yards, one of his game-high eight receptions. Three plays later, with 48 seconds to go, the Patriots faced fourth and 1 at the 4 - and had a decision to make.
Anyone with sense would have called a run, especially with one timeout remaining. Anyone with guts would have run what Belichick and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis called - the play they wanted to.
Brady play-faked to Antowain Smith and bootlegged right - right into Kailee Wong. Brady avoided the rush and got off a throw to Graham, who had created separation between himself and Eric Brown (wink, wink). Graham lunged to his left and reached back to his right to haul in the tying score.
Whew. “That really wasn’t a risky call,” Weis said. “It turned out risky. To be honest, we were going to run first, but I said, `Look, this is our lead play on the goal line.’ “
“I thought it was the right situation for it,” Belichick said. “We could have run it and picked up the first down but we still would have been looking at having the ball on the 3- or 4-yard line. We were still looking at a sequence of plays with about 45 seconds left.”
Of much-maligned second-year tight end Graham, Weis said, “He could have shut it down early in the game, but he made two of the biggest plays of the game.”
The defense might have something to say about that. Mike Vrabel intercepted Tony Banks’s pass on the first play from scrimmage in overtime, giving New England possession at the 23. This’ll be quick, right? Wrong, as Walker blocked Vinatieri’s 37-yard attempt. The Texans advanced to the Patriots’ 40 on their next possession, but the visitors held. Willie McGinest’s tackle (one of eight, half for no gain or loss) of Domanick Davis for a 5-yard loss on Houston’s next drive denied the Texans a field-goal attempt after Ken Walter’s short punt. “One of the things you don’t want to do in those situations is lose yardage,” Texans coach Dom Capers said.
“We knew we didn’t have much room to work with, so we couldn’t give up a lot of yards,” said Ty Law, whose breakup of a Banks pass intended for Andre Johnson in the first quarter on third and goal from the 1 helped hold Houston to a field goal.
Operating out of their two-minute offense (there was 4:20 left), the Patriots went 76 yards in nine plays to set up the winning kick. Brady completed 5 of 6 passes. For the game, he was 29 of 47 for 368 yards, with 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and a fumbled snap that he recovered.
It looked bad for a while, but the Patriots managed to recover yesterday. They can’t expect to do the same against the Colts.
“The guys were happy, but we know that we didn’t play the way we’re capable of playing,” Rodney Harrison said. “When we came into the locker room, it wasn’t like we were just celebrating. We won the game, but we know we have a lot of work to do.”