HOUSTON — No Sunday night stunner this time.
While snow pelted the ground in New England, the Texans pelted the Patriots at NRG Stadium, 28-22, Sunday night.
The Patriots weren’t able to duplicate the miraculous comeback they pulled off in Super Bowl LI in this building as their sputtering offense couldn’t get in motion until it was too late.
New England not only lost the game, it lost its grip on the top seed in the AFC playoff race. The white-hot Ravens sit in the catbird’s seat in the all-important jockeying for home-field advantage.
In front of a Texans’ record crowd of 72,025 — there were plenty of Patriots fans dotting the seats — the visitors were done in by Deshaun Watson’s wizardry and costly penalties.
Watson threw three touchdown passes and caught a fourth from DeAndre Hopkins on nifty option-looking pass. Watson pitched it to Hopkins, who then threw it back to Watson, who soared over the orange pylon for the score.
“I think they drew that one up in the dirt,’’ quipped Texans coach Bill O’Brien.
The New England defense had given up just four touchdown passes entering the game.
That Watson TD came a possession after he’d thrown a 35-yard touchdown to Kenny Stills, one play after having what appeared to be 35-yard scoring strike to Will Fuller overturned on replay.
“The Texans did a better job across the board — they were the better team,’’ said Bill Belichick. “We have to coach better, play better. That pretty much sums it up.’’
After falling behind, 28-9, in the fourth quarter, the Patriots scored a pair of late touchdowns to cut the deficit and actually did have a last-gasp shot a pulling off a comeback. Jake Bailey’s onside kick sailed just out of the reach of Brandon Bolden’s outstretched arms with 50 seconds left, sealing the win.
The game was a bit of a statistical anomaly as the Patriots, despite appearing discombobulated for long stretches, actually outgained the Texans, 448-276, and held the ball for nearly 10 more minutes (34:35 to 25:25).
After the Patriots offense opened the game with an extended march to take a 3-0 lead on Kai Forbath’s 23-yard field goal, the unit had trouble getting away from Houston defenders.
In fact, they had trouble getting out of their own way.
After collecting five first downs on their first drive, New England earned only five more the rest of the first half.
Bad routes, bad throws, and bad decisions led to four fruitless drives as Brady continued to have trouble getting on — and staying on — the same page with his rookie receivers.
Brady hit Julian Edelman for a pair of third-down conversions on the initial march, but after that New England’s receivers caught just two balls on 14 targets before halftime.
Brady connected on just 7 of 19 passes for a mere 82 yards.
It was the Patriots offense that helped the Texans offense get on track when Brady threw an interception deep in his own territory. Five of Brady’s six picks this season have come on the road.
Top pick N’Keal Harry was outmuscled on a slant route by Bradley Roby, who returned it to the New England 6-yard line. Roby’s unsportsmanlike penalty (he took his helmet off while celebrating) put it at the 21.
Roby did get away with slight tug of Harry’s jersey, but the rookie should have been able to fight through, and gain leverage and position on such a route.
Harry saw minimal playing time – and zero targets – after the interception.
Watson needed three plays to punch it in, identifying a mismatch and hitting running back Duke Johnson, who got a step on Kyle Van Noy, for a 14-yard touchdown and a 7-3 lead.
The Texans added to the lead on their next possession, venturing on the kind of lengthy drive not often surrendered by this New England defense.
Watson was wonderful on the 14-play drive, mixing the run (6) and pass (8) beautifully and keeping the Patriots defense on its heels.
The dynamic quarterback capped it when he again exploited a favorable matchup. Watson rolled left and hit tight end Daniel Fells, who had gained separation on Dont’a Hightower with a 13-yard catch and run for a 14-3 lead the Texans took into halftime.
“We all have to perform better,’’ said Belichick. “First half wasn’t good enough in any phase of the game.’’