HOUSTON — A year ago, the Texans went into Gillette Stadium in the hunt for the AFC’s top playoff seed and were humbled by the Patriots.
Sunday, Houston had little to play for other than pride and gave New England a far tougher fight than it had 12 months earlier, though the result was the same: a Patriots win.
Two 53-yard field goals from Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth quarter tied the score, then gave the Patriots the winning points, as they left a field victorious for the ninth time this season, 34-31.
It broke a three-game road losing streak for New England, which hadn’t won away from Gillette Stadium since Sept. 29 in Atlanta. It also extended the Texans’ losing streak to 10 games.
But New England found itself in now-familiar territory at halftime, trailing, 17-7. It was the third straight game and fourth of the last five the Patriots have been down at the break.
That they’ve been able to pull out wins in three of those four points to the character of the team; with the playoffs starting in a month, however, it isn’t a trend the Patriots can continue.
“If you keep playing with fire long enough, you’re going to get burned,” cocaptain Matthew Slater said. “We’ve been escaping the burns, but we have to find a way to play better early.”
One of the big problems for the Patriots in the first half was field position; Houston’s three first-half scoring drives all began on short fields.
For their opening touchdown, they began at their 48 after New England’s first possession ended with a three-and-out and a Ryan Allen punt; on the field goal that followed, the drive began at the Patriots 31 after Tom Brady’s only interception of the game and Johnathan Joseph’s 31-yard return; and the second touchdown drive also began near midfield, after Gostkowski missed a 55-yard field goal attempt.
Similarly, the Patriots’ lone opening-half score came when they didn’t have to cover much ground, starting at their 45 thanks to a 41-yard kickoff return by Josh Boyce.
Otherwise, New England had third-down problems offensively in the first half, converting just 3 of 7, and couldn’t establish a ground game (which continued into the second half), and defensively there were problems covering receiver Andre Johnson and stopping running back Ben Tate, particularly in the red zone.
“We’re not playing well, we’re not coaching well enough . . . we’re just not doing a good enough job in any area,” Bill Belichick said of the Patriots’ first-half woes. “From opening kickoff to defense to the offense, none of it is good enough. We have to do a better job coaching and they have to do a better job playing.”
As veteran Andre Carter reiterated, regrouping in the second half and finding ways to win is a character trait, but with December here and the postseason just weeks away, the first-half stumbles are something New England has to fix.
Just as digging themselves a hole in the first half has become a trend, so has a third-quarter-opening touchdown for the Patriots become part of the narrative in recent weeks.
In just five plays, they traveled 78 yards to pull within 3. Brady threw a 16-yard pass to Danny Amendola (who was targeted just once in the first half but finished with five catches for 54 yards), Shane Vereen ran for a loss of a yard, and Brady and Rob Gronkowski hooked up on a 50-yard pass.
On the ensuing play, it looked like Vereen got just inside the pylon, but he was ruled down at the 1, for a 12-yard catch-and-run.
Former Brown Bear James Develin, who got his first career carry earlier in the game, got his second on first down, and had one of the hardest-fought touchdown runs this season. Stopped at the middle of the line, Develin kept his feet moving and kept moving to his left until he finally got over the goal line for the first TD of his career.
“I’ll watch the tape and figure it out,” Brady (29 for 41, 371 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) said of the differences between the halves. “But whatever we’re doing is not good enough and we can’t keep getting behind because you’ve got to play too well in the second half to overcome.
“We did a good job with penalties today. We had some good matchups, we made a lot of plays. We probably had more opportunities to make plays, but they’re pretty good in the secondary and those guys played really hard. It’s a good defense.”
Brady alluded to penalties: The Patriots did not draw a flag in the game. It was the second time this season they’ve been penalty-free; the first was against Cincinnati.
The Patriots scored on their first five second-half possessions, though Houston stayed close.
After New England had another efficient drive, going 73 yards on seven plays, highlighted by a beautiful Brady-to-Julian Edelman 25-yard sideline pass that could not have been any more on the money for the receiver, it took a 21-17 lead on a 9-yard Vereen reception, the team’s first lead of the day.
It was a credit to the Texans that they didn’t fold at that point, reclaiming the lead twice before Gostkowski’s tying, then winning field goals.
The Texans went three-and-out on their penultimate series, Chandler Jones bursting through the middle of the line to get in quarterback Case Keenum’s face and force him to get rid of the ball.
On their last real possession, Keenum hit Johnson for back-to-back first downs, but then the New England defense buckled down, dropping Tate for a loss, followed by incompletions to DeAndre Hopkins, who earlier in the game had a 66-yard reception, the longest play allowed by the Patriots this year, and tight end Garrett Graham.
Going for it on fourth and 12, Keenum was swarmed quickly by Carter, Chris Jones, and Rob Ninkovich, and feebly tried to throw the ball to anyone.
“At the end of the day, we made plays when we needed to,” Carter said. “Houston, in spite of their record, they’re a good football team. We knew we’d get their best shot and they came out swinging.”
New England can clinch its fifth straight AFC East title and the accompanying playoff berth next week against Cleveland if it wins and Miami loses in Pittsburgh.Shalise Manza Young can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.