HOUSTON — Based on their loss to the Texans, the Patriots are either not as good a team as they’ve been or a team that hasn’t been playing as well as it has historically. It’s a distinction that might have been without a difference Sunday night but means a lot for New England’s chances going forward.
Those inclined toward pessimism probably saw a team that didn’t have enough on offense to compete consistently against the 26th-ranked defense in the NFL, and therefore, just isn’t very good. Those slightly more optimistic might have seen a team that hurt itself with penalties and that doesn’t seem to know itself very well right now.
After the game Sunday night, players fell into that second category. They spoke of mistakes that killed their chances at another NRG Stadium comeback, their words implying or explicitly stating that those mistakes are fixable.
“Everybody is taking their turn making mistakes, myself included,” said running back James White. “You can’t do that on offense, it creates a lot of negative plays and long yardage and it’s hard to convert third-and-longs every single time against a good defense.”
There were the eight penalties. The dropped pass by Mohamed Sanu on the attempted fourth-down conversion. The delay-of-game taken when the coaching staff found no good options on the menu for a 2-point conversion, leading to a longer extra point attempt that new kicker Kai Forbath missed.
Routes run out of bounds just short of the first-down marker. The third-down incompletion to Jakobi Meyers, who was not where Brady wanted him. The interception made easy for Houston corner Bradley Roby when N’Keal Harry, who’s 30 pounds heavier, let Roby get inside position on an inside route.
What the Patriots are saying is that these are isolated, individual incidents. Their theory is that they can be cleaned up and done away with because they are mistakes, not fatal flaws.
“At the end of the day, it’s just fundamental stuff that we know we can fix and we will,” said Sanu.
About the ball he dropped on the Patriots’ fourth-down try, Sanu said Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham had jammed him as he was running across the field. It didn’t look as if Sanu got thrown out of his route, but he said it impacted how he tried to catch the ball.
“I got hit before the ball got thrown to me,” Sanu said. “It actually threw my vision off and I saw it late, tried to grab it.”
Harry had little to say about his role in the interception. He said he needed to watch the film in response to most questions about it. Asked what it felt like in the moment, he still wasn’t sure.
“I mean, I guess I could have just held my body more, but like I said I haven’t watched it on film yet,” Harry said. “I have to see it first.”
Harry also said he didn’t know why he didn’t play much after the first quarter and didn’t remember what Brady said to the receivers during a moment on the sideline when TV cameras captured the quarterback delivering an animated message.
Meyers’s memories were more clear. He said that on the third-and-6 play, where Brady wound up yelling at him, Meyers said the incompletion and miscommunication was his fault. Brady scrambled and directed Meyers to run long, but the rookie did not adjust and the pass fell incomplete.
“He was trying to tell me to turn up and go,” Meyers said. “I don’t know honestly what I thought in the moment. I tried to push up, come back to give him the target, but we were just on different pages.”
Meyers said he knows he doesn’t have much time to get things like that corrected.
“That’s kind of what I’ve learned about the NFL, honestly,” he said. “It’s a performance-based business. You only get so many chances, opportunities before you’re out of here, so if he wants me to go up next time I know I better go up before my number is called.”
There are some problems that seem more systemic than a couple of flubbed routes. Brady held onto the ball for an average of 3.4 seconds against the Texans, longer than he has since the start of 2016. That’s evidence his targets are failing to get open, not that they’re occasionally running the wrong route or their timing is poor.
Brady, who’s usually a clinician against the blitz, is 27th in both QBR and passer rating when teams send extra rushers this season.
Add in the continued struggles in the red zone and there’s evidence this is a team limited in big ways across large sample sizes with problems that run back to roster construction.
So it’s another year, and more talk of doomsday in December for the Patriots even as they sit at 10-2.
Poll the locker room and you’ll hear that the issues do not run so deep. Wait until January and February to find out for sure.