The Patriots thumped the Texans, 27-0, thanks to a punishing performance by the offensive line and a perfect game plan on defense (with perfect execution).
But the most impressive unit in Thursday's win was the Patriots' special teams, which thoroughly dominated the Texans and created several hidden advantages.
We start, of course, with the two fumbles the Patriots forced and recovered on Texans kickoff returns. The Patriots recovered on the Texans' 22- and 21-yard lines, and scored touchdowns on each of the ensuing possessions.
But the punt coverage team really won the day. It started with punter Ryan Allen, who rebounded from a mediocre Week 2 performance against the Dolphins to thrive against the Texans.
We're not sure which stat is more impressive: That Allen had a net average of 47.6 yards on his seven punts, or that the Patriots didn't allow one single return yard. Allen had five fair catches and two punts that were downed, pinning the Texans inside their 10-yard line four times.
But it wasn't all Allen's doing, of course. Rookie cornerback Jonathan Jones got down the field so quickly on one punt that he forced the returner to let the ball bounce, and it gave the Patriots an extra 10 yards of field position.
Houston's average starting field position was their 16-yard line, and six of their 11 possessions began inside their 15. That meant Brock Osweiler and the offense had long fields to work with, and they simply weren't able to piece together long drives.
Bill Belichick likes to talk about complimentary football, hidden yardage, and the importance of the kicking game. All three came into play on Thursday.
Other observations after reviewing the game film:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ Nice job by Josh McDaniels to manage the game with Jacoby Brissett making his first career start. Among his 19 throws, Brissett didn’t throw as many play-action passes (two) and screens (four) as expected, but still had lots of simple, designed throws — a quick slant to Malcolm Mitchell with the cornerback playing off coverage, a quick out to Danny Amendola against man coverage, and so on.
The Texans mostly played Cover 1 man, stacking the box with an extra defender and daring Brissett to beat them deep.
Brissett missed a couple of wide-open receivers, was erratic with his deep passes (which were brilliant during training camp), should've been intercepted in the end zone, and was a little quick to bail on the pocket, but all of that is to be expected with a young quarterback. Brissett showed toughness by playing through his thumb injury, displayed some serious arm strength, and played with tremendous poise for a rookie.
■ McDaniels got creative to help Brissett. The new wrinkle for this game: motioning Julian Edelman into the backfield as a running back. The first time, Brissett faked a pitch to Edelman, faked a pitch to LeGarrette Blount, and kept the ball himself for a 13-yard run. Twice in the second quarter, Brissett faked the option to Edelman and handed off to Blount. And again in the third quarter, Brissett faked the pitch to Edelman and Blount and kept the ball himself. The Edelman plays didn’t always work — Brissett’s final run was stuffed for no gain — but it kept the Texans honest and gave them something to think about.
■ This game was really about the offensive line, particularly left tackle Nate Solder, who was an absolute beast. He was mostly matched up against Jadeveon Clowney, and he did a tremendous job keeping Brissett clean, and playing to the whistle and finishing his blocks. Solder was so dominant that Clowney took a swing at him at one point out of frustration. The Patriots ran 20 times to the left side for 106 yards, including Blount’s 41-yard touchdown. In the third quarter, the Patriots ran seven straight plays to the left side for 37 yards.
■ Marcus Cannon also had a phenomenal game, manhandling J.J. Watt both in the run game and in pass protection. Watt was clearly not himself, playing without any explosion following offseason back surgery. Cannon put Watt on the ground throughout the game, and he saved Brissett from a big hit by sliding over to knock Watt out of the way at the last second. Shaq Mason also had some nice blocks on the second level, and his perfect chip of Bernardrick McKinney allowed Brissett to get around the edge and scamper clean down the field on his 27-yard touchdown run.
■ Leading, 20-0, in the fourth quarter, the Patriots ran a sweep to the left out of the I-formation that picked up 6 yards behind key blocks from Solder and James Develin. The Patriots liked that play so much that they called it again on the very next play. Solder and Develin once again made key blocks, Edelman and Chris Hogan made key blocks downfield, and Blount did the rest for a 41-yard touchdown.
■ Rob Gronkowski played only 14 snaps, and two were on kneeldowns at the end of the first half. He mostly played on the goal-line package, and he ran one route all game, a fade. Gronkowski otherwise was a decoy or an extra blocker. Martellus Bennett, meanwhile, played 63 of 64 snaps and once again was a workhorse as a blocker. He has played in 212 of 215 snaps this year and has brought a real blue-collar work ethic to the offense.
When the Texans had the ball
■ Everyone in the building knew that the Texans only had two dangerous receiving threats in DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, and having two rangy free safeties really paid off for the Patriots. This game was classic Belichick — take away what the other team does best and make it beat you with its third and fourth options.
The Patriots took away the deep ball from Hopkins and Fuller with Devin McCourty (all 71 snaps) and Duron Harmon (69 of 71 snaps) playing Cover 2 for most of the game (with a little Cover 1 and Cover 3 mixed in). Tight end Ryan Griffin led the Texans with 10 targets. He entered the game with just four targets all season. Advantage: Patriots.
■ Cover 2, which the Patriots haven’t played much over the last three years, not only took away the deep ball but allowed the cornerbacks to play extra tight on their receivers. Logan Ryan did a phenomenal job on Hopkins, not just by allowing only four catches for 56 yards, but Hopkins didn’t have a single yard after the catch all day, as Ryan was draped all over him and tightly contested every catch. The only time Osweiler could complete a pass to Hopkins was on a perfectly thrown deep out that Hopkins caught against the sideline.
■ Jamie Collins also was able to goad Osweiler into an interception. Early in the game, Collins and Jonathan Freeny played traditional Cover 2, covering a zone 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. In the second quarter, Collins took a deeper drop — 15-20 yards down the middle of the field, a concept known as the “Tampa 2” defense — but Osweiler didn’t notice. The deeper drop allowed Collins to be in perfect position when Osweiler ripped the throw over the middle, and Collins stepped in front for the fingertip interception.
Collins also showed incredible instincts by recognizing the passing route for running back Jonathan Grimes, fighting through traffic and getting in position in time to tackle Grimes for no gain on third and 4.
These are the types of plays that will help Collins break the bank in free agency.
■ The Patriots played a soft defensive front for most of the game, begging the Texans to run the ball. Alan Branch and Malcom Brown dominated backup center Greg Mancz and did a great job of getting off blocks and making stuffs in the run game.
The right side of the Texans' offensive line was banged up, and the Patriots took advantage by overloading that side. Jabaal Sheard owned right tackle Derek Newton, who was listed with elbow and ankle injuries, by plowing through him for two sacks and three pressures.
Shea McClellin hasn't made too many impact plays this year, but he had a nice shed-and-stuff in the run game. The Patriots also did a lot of zone blitzing, with Trey Flowers dropping into coverage at one point, and Chris Long almost coming up with an interception on a crossing route.
■ Malcolm Butler and Ryan also had nice contributions in the run defense, an underrated part of both of their games. Harmon’s 69 snaps were a career high. Rookie Cyrus Jones replaced Jonathan Coleman as the nickel cornerback and played a season-high 33 snaps, while Coleman didn’t play a snap on defense.
Jordan Richards, last year's second-round pick, did not play a snap on defense either, and he has played only three snaps in three games.