HOUSTON — It took a last-minute field goal to edge the lowly Texans Sunday afternoon, but the Patriots managed to escape Houston with a 25-22 win. Through five weeks, New England is 2-3, second in the AFC East behind the 4-1 Buffalo Bills.
Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly so far this season.
▪ Outside linebacker Matthew Judon: Of the free agents the Patriots signed this offseason, Judon by far has made the biggest splash. He has emerged as New England’s best defensive playmaker, ranking first on the team in quarterback pressures (12) and sacks (6½).
With the Texans threatening to score at the end of the first half Sunday, Judon sacked rookie quarterback Davis Mills twice — on first and goal and third and goal — to force a field goal.
“Matt’s an explosive player,” coach Bill Belichick said Monday morning. “He’s certainly given us a number of significant plays. I think as he continues to work with his teammates and build communication and adjustments in the defense, it’ll continue to get better.”
Belichick also called Judon strong, fast, and instinctive, though the list of positive adjectives could go on and on — dynamic, confident, influential, engaging, you name it.
Even if it weren’t for his high level of play, Judon would still be easy to spot on the field with his new signature look: bright red sleeves. According to Judon, he has “fragile skin” that gets cut up easily on the turf, so he wears long sleeves as a safeguard.
“I can’t be buying new bed sheets every night,” Judon said. “Come home, there’s blood all over my bed sheets.”
▪ Kicker Nick Folk: Folk has attempted a league-high 15 field goals this season, which does not reflect well on the Patriots’ ability to find the end zone. The good news, however, is that Folk has converted on all but one, a 56-yard miss in the final minutes against the Buccaneers.
Given the heavy usage, Folk’s consistency has proven extremely valuable. At almost 37 years old, his leg strength isn’t too shabby either, as he hit from 52 yards twice Sunday.
The Patriots kept two kickers — Folk and undrafted rookie Quinn Nordin, who made the initial 53-man roster but is now on injured reserve (abdomen) — and chose the correct starter.
▪ Quarterback Mac Jones: While their offensive stats don’t jump off the page, the Patriots should feel encouraged by Jones’s performance thus far.
Yes, New England ranks 18th in total passing yards, tied for 25th in passing touchdowns, and 26th in scoring, averaging 19.2 points per game. They also are dead last in the red zone, connecting for a touchdown just 37.5 percent of the time.
But, as offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has noted multiple times, there are a number of factors affecting the passing attack, from protection to route-running to play-calling.
Jones has shown real promise, both as a passer and game manager. He exhibited tremendous poise Sunday, engineering a 15-play, 84-yard, seven-minute final drive that ended with Folk’s game-winning 21-yard field goal.
“Mac gave it to us all day,” Belichick said. “Mac’s been good for us all year in terms of his leadership, his resilience, and kind of always counting on him to do the right thing. He really does it at a high level, so it’s been impressive.”
His teammates have not been shy with their praise, either.
“No. 10, he’s a tough son of a gun,” said center David Andrews. “Hats off to him.”
▪ No Stephon Gilmore: The Patriots cut into their secondary last week when they traded their best cornerback to the Panthers for a 2023 sixth-round pick. Even though Gilmore would have been sidelined Sunday, the bottom-dwelling Texans exposed New England’s defensive backfield, which also was without cornerback Jalen Mills (hamstring).
Cornerback Joejuan Williams earned his first career start but was not up for the task. He bit on a 37-yard flea-flicker touchdown that gave the Texans a 22-9 lead at the beginning of the third quarter, and allowed a reception on fourth down that resulted in a 40-yard gain.
Williams ended up getting benched, as the Patriots moved Jonathan Jones to outside cornerback and inserted safety Myles Bryant, who was elevated from the practice squad.
The secondary will continue to be tested with the likes of CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper, Keenan Allen, and Mike Williams coming up on the schedule.
▪ The schedule: Speaking of which, opponents don’t get much easier than the Texans.
The Patriots will have their work cut out over the next five weeks, facing the 4-1 Cowboys, 4-1 Chargers on the road, 3-2 Panthers on the road, and 3-2 Browns. There will be a baked-in win Week 7 against the 1-4 Jets, but the Patriots are going to have put forth a much better product if they want to come out of that stretch with a winning record.
▪ Right tackle Trent Brown: After returning to New England on a one-year deal, Brown was supposed to be an important piece of the offensive line. But he played only seven snaps in the season opener, exited with a calf injury, and hasn’t been on the field since.
Brown’s recovery must not be progressing at an encouraging rate because the Patriots placed him on injured reserve Saturday, which means he will now miss at least another two games before being eligible to return.
▪ Ball security: The Patriots fumbled once again Sunday, when Texans cornerback Terrance Mitchell punched the ball out as running back Damien Harris was crossing the goal line.
The fumble was Harris’s second of the season, both coming inside the red zone. The running back doghouse has had a revolving door this season, as J.J. Taylor and Rhamondre Stevenson have each lost a fumble, too.
There’s plenty of room for improvement beyond taking better care of the ball, however. The Patriots rank 27th in rushing attempts and yards, including an abysmal performance against the Buccaneers.
Nicole Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.