FOXBOROUGH — Deshaun Watson pulled rabbit after rabbit out of his hat, frustrating the Patriots with one magical play after another as the Texans quarterback appeared poised to pull out a victory at Gillette Stadium.
Then the master magician took center stage.
Tom Brady hit Brandin Cooks on a 25-yard touchdown pass with 23 ticks left, and the pair connected again on a 2-point conversion for a magical 36-33 come-from-behind win on Sunday.
It was the fifth touchdown pass of the day for Brady and it came just moments after Houston had extended its lead to 33-28 with 2:24 left in front of a stunned and sun-scorched crowd of 65,878.
The Cooks touchdown (his second of the day) capped a classic Brady two-minute drive in which he connected on 5 of 7 passes for 93 yards, converting a clutch third and 12 (15-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski) and an even clutcher third and 18 (27-yard connection to Danny Amendola).
It was all the more impressive considering the offense was in a funk for much of the fourth, with a pair of three-and-out possessions preceding the winning march.
“That was great situational plays by a lot of guys,’’ said Brady, who finished with 25 of 35 for 378 yards. “We didn’t do much there in the fourth quarter, and the defense [held the Texans] to the field goal there and gave us just enough time, and we made some great catches, [got] great blocking, and [I’m] glad we won.’’
On the winner, Brady got great protection, pump-faked to Amendola who was heading up the left seam, and then dropped it in to Cooks, who snagged it, tapped his toes, and hung on as he fell out of bounds.
“They were playing a two-high [safety] defense and we got Cookie behind the corner,’’ said Brady. “We had Danny going up the middle of the field, so I tried to stare down the middle and then put it up and didn’t really see the end of it until I saw it on the scoreboard. It was close, and then they reviewed it. I’m glad we got the 2-point play. It was a great win. Got to play to the last second.’’
Until that last second it was Watson who was making the big plays. The rookie first-rounder with the national championship under his belt led his team to points in every quarter. He completed 22 of 33 passes for 301 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also ran for 41 yards and sidestepped at least that many tackles.
Watch: Ben Volin and Jim McBride break down the Patriots’ win
The Patriots sacked him twice but had their hands on him seemingly every play.
“It’s very frustrating just knowing you have a chance to get him in a third and long or fourth and long and somehow he Houdinis his way out and makes a key pass to make a first down or pulls it down and runs to make a first down,’’ said Patriots tackle Alan Branch. “He knows where the sticks are and he always finds a way to get past it.’’
Watson failed in his attempt to become the first rookie to beat the Belichick-led Patriots at home, but he succeeded in proving that the Texans have found their franchise quarterback.
“He doesn’t disappoint,’’ said Branch.
And, of course, neither does Brady.
“It’s amazing what that guy can do,’’ said Branch. “Sometimes you just catch yourself watching him like a fan with the best seat in the house. But, you know, at the same time, it’s not that surprising anymore.’’
Here are some other observations as the Patriots improved to 2-1 and now begin to prepare for another dual-threat quarterback, Carolina’s Cam Newton, who arrives Sunday.
■ The offensive line struggled.
The behemoths up front had trouble protecting Brady (five sacks, 41 yards), but like their leader turned it up a notch on the winning drive.
“We played our best ball when we needed it,’’ said left tackle Nate Solder. “We played bad for a lot of the game, not up to our standard. But when you win and pull of a win even in tough circumstances, there’s something to be said for that.’’
■ The defense stepped up in the fourth quarter.
Despite being on the field for lengthy stretches and playing a scrambling quarterback, Matt Patricia’s group showed heart when it mattered most. They held the Texans to field goals on two of the final three possessions to put the offense in a position to win.
“Yeah, we took the field like, ‘Let’s just get off the field and get the ball back to our offense,’ ’’ said safety Devin McCourty, who finished with 10 tackles. “Defensively, we have a lot of faith.’’
■ The ground attack was stifled all day.
New England was only able to churn out 59 yards on 20 carries and again had trouble in short-yardage situations.
“There’s a lot of things we can do better, need to do better,’’ coach Bill Belichick said when asked specifically about short-yardage situations. “We’ll work on those. That’s a pretty lengthy list.’’
■ Jadeveon Clowney had a monster day.
The Texans linebacker/defensive end/athletic freak collected six tackles (four for losses), two sacks, and returned a Brady fumble 22 yards for a touchdown that gave Houston a 20-14 lead in the second quarter.
“I was just trying to make a play,’’ said Clowney.