HOUSTON — Tom Brady is going to be the talk of New England and possibly the football nation again after another brilliant performance and another comeback in the Patriots’ 34-31 victory over the Texans Sunday. And we’ll get to him in a minute.
But to understand how the Patriots were able to overcome a 24-0 halftime deficit last week against the Broncos, and erase a 17-7 halftime deficit to the Texans Sunday, start with the five beefy guys up front protecting him.
The Texans, featuring arguably the game’s best pass rusher in J.J. Watt and some pretty capable ones in Antonio Smith and Whitney Mercilus, sacked Brady exactly one time Sunday, a split sack by Mercilus and Jeff Tarpinian on a third-down blitz in the second quarter. On 42 passing plays Sunday, Brady was hit just five times.
The Broncos, who entered last week’s game ranked in the top 10 in the league in sacks, got Brady three times in 53 passing plays and hit him just five times overall.
But there’s more. All four of the sacks allowed in the past two games came in the first half. The Patriots ran 55 passing plays in the second halves, and Brady was not sacked.
And they’re doing it with a third-string right tackle in Will Svitek, too. Sebastian Vollmer is done for the year with a broken leg, and Marcus Cannon is out with an ankle injury. But the Patriots keep right on blocking.
“Obviously, we feel comfortable with a great quarterback like Tom,” center Ryan Wendell said in a boisterous Patriots locker room. “But he can’t do his job if we don’t do ours. So, it starts with us doing our job first.”
Let’s be honest, though — the Patriots’ offensive line, while good, hasn’t been up to par compared with last year. They have allowed 32 sacks in 12 games compared with 27 for all of last season. Logan Mankins has allowed seven sacks this year, compared with two last year. Nate Solder has doubled his total from last year, from four to eight.
Brady did have a full five seconds in the pocket to find Rob Gronkowski streaking down the left seam for a touchdown in the second quarter. But a lot of Brady’s protection the last two weeks has come from Brady himself, in addition to good play-calling.
The Patriots stayed true to the run, rushing 15 times in the second half against the Texans, and Brady was devastating with the play-action pass, often turning his back completely to the defense before unleashing a fastball to Julian Edelman or Gronkowski over the middle, before Watt and Co. could get in his face.
“He gets rid of the ball fast,” said Smith, who finished with just two tackles. “They’ve got it mapped out on the guy who can most likely get [to the quarterback]. And whenever he sees that guy come free, he gets rid of the ball real fast. You’ve got to beat him on the back side, where he can’t see you.”
Brady finished with 371 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception, and he was surgical in the second half, completing 18 of 23 passes for 263 yards and a touchdown. The Patriots had six possessions in the second half: touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, field goal, field goal, punt with seven seconds left to seal the win.
That’s nothing new, of course. They scored touchdowns on four straight possessions to start the second half last week against Denver.
All those concerns from early in the season, when Brady didn’t feel comfortable with his new receivers? And when he got happy feet behind his offensive line? And we wondered whether his puffy hand was distracting him or affecting his accuracy?
Those are distant memories now. Brady stood confidently against the Texans’ pass rush in the second half, and overall completed passes to eight receivers.
Texans left tackle Duane Brown watched with amazement from the sideline.
“It’s hard to see that, man,” he said. “He fits the ball in some tight spaces. But he’s been doing that for a long time, and he’ll go down as one of the best. Much respect to him.”
Brady was so good, in fact, that Smith seemed to think that the Patriots had some inside intelligence on the Texans. Without getting into specifics, Smith said that the Texans introduced new defensive schemes and calls this week, and it was “suspicious” that the Patriots were prepared for them from the get-go.
“I noticed it right off the bat . . . we were talking about it,” Smith said. “It could just be good film study. But like I said, very suspicious.”
It’s hard to know exactly what goes on behind the scenes, but it sounds like excuse-making from a player whose team just lost its 10th straight game and allowed Brady to march up and down the field for 453 total yards (the Texans’ previous high this year was 357). It’s easy to accuse the Patriots of cheating after their Spygate ordeal from six years ago, and a lot harder to accept responsibility for getting picked apart.
Smith also said the Texans decided to scrap their new plans after halftime and “decided [to] just line up.” But Smith’s claims don’t match up with what happened on the field. The Patriots gained 146 yards, scored 7 points, and had an interception, two punts, and a missed field goal among their five possessions in the first half when the Patriots allegedly knew what the Texans were bringing. But in the second half, when the Texans supposedly switched out of their new plans, the Patriots gained 307 yards and scored 27 points.
More likely, Bill Belichick and his crew did a good job of assessing the game at halftime and figuring out ways to get Gronk and Edelman open. They combined for 71 yards in the first half, and 157 yards in the second half. Gronkowski was wide open as he streaked down the field for a 50-yard catch in the third quarter.
“We always make adjustments, certainly. You prepare for a game, see how it unfolds, and you make adjustments during the game,” Belichick said. “We haven’t, like, reinvented the game. We’ve just basically done the same thing in the second half we’ve done in the first half. We’ve just done better.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin