Twenty-eight thoughts on the Patriots’ 28-22 loss to the Texans . . .
1. I’m not interested in hearing any takes about how Tom Brady stinks or is overrated or whatever. I’m not interested in hearing from anyone who thinks his achievements place him beyond questioning after a mostly lousy performance, either. I just want more clarity on what is going on here, after the Patriots offense’s debacle of a performance against the NFL’s 20th-rated defense and 25th-rated pass defense Sunday night. The Patriots’ season hinges on that clarity.
2. Brady finished 24 of 47, moving over 50 percent passing only on the final drive, when the Patriots cut the score to 6 points, making the final seem tighter than it was. He was 7 of 19 in the first half, following a 17 for 37 performance in last week’s win over Dallas. He was frustrated that his receivers couldn’t get open, and he was probably frustrated that he wasn’t getting them the ball when they were.
3. Brady, who has been on the injury report with an elbow issue, lacked his usual zip on the ball. He also made throws in which his receivers were nowhere near where he expected them to be. The Texans doubled Julian Edelman — at 33 years old, far and away his best weapon — and paid proper attention to James White, and that left Brady to beat them with his other options. Turns out there were no options at all.
4. Some of it is on him. Of course it is. He’s 42, and sometimes he looks it. He has aged over the past year. He’s quick to abandon plays, sometimes even when he has time. He’s quick to abandon players — N’Keal Harry was invisible after a first-quarter mistake played a role in an interception. The offense is quick to abandon the run. The Patriots played like a team resigned to defeat in the second half, and Brady wore that on his face.
5. This was supposed to be the night the Patriots offense came to life. Instead, it looked as uninspiring and flawed as it has all season. The Patriots have to solve this, if they can identify the problem in the first place and recognize whether it’s reparable. Is Brady hurt? Does he still have his fastball but just can’t put any trust in the personnel? Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels must figure out what he is capable of doing, and they must figure out what the personnel surrounding him is capable of doing, and they have to do it now.
6. No, it’s not dire for the Patriots — they’re 10-2. But it’s not exactly trending the right way. They now trail Lamar Jackson and the Ravens in the AFC playoff race. They’ve got the Buffalo Bills (9-3) nipping at their heels in the division, with Josh Allen suddenly doing Young Steve Grogan things for the Bills. And the Patriots defense is now coming off a game in which they gave up as many passing touchdowns to Deshaun Watson and the Texans (4) as they had allowed all year.
7. Even in the fleeting moments when the Patriots appeared to have something going, it didn’t last long. On their second possession of the second half, James White picked up 32 yards on a well-executed run, Mohamed Sanu showed up to convert a third and 5 . . . and then it fizzled with a play that was a microcosm of the whole lousy night.
8. On fourth and 1 at the Houston 42, the Patriots went for it. Everyone familiar with Brady’s work figured the Patriots would run a sneak for the first down given his knack for converting them through the years. They did not sneak. Instead, Brady dropped back and threw to Sanu . . . who dropped it like Nelson Agholor, as they say in Philly.
9. The call will be second-guessed, but the play was there, and taking a shot at a bigger play was a worthwhile dare when the Houston defense probably thought the sneak was coming. Further, the Patriots had a backup center on the field — Ted Karras had just departed with an injury, meaning James Ferentz was in. It was a decent play call. Sanu just didn’t make it work.
10. Sanu has had some moments since he came over from the Falcons, including a 10-catch game against the Ravens the last time the Patriots were on Sunday Night Football. And he’s fighting through an ankle injury. But he does make some curious decisions. It seems like his routes are often just short of the first-down marker. And there’s no way he should be returning — or more accurately, fielding — punts. He called for a fair catch at the 5 last night. Not wise.
11. The Patriots’ first touchdown came in the third quarter when Brady found a wide-open James White for a catch-and-run 12-yard score. White has been underutilized by the Patriots in recent weeks, perhaps in part because he’s being covered by defensive backs who don’t have to worry about Patriots wide receivers other than Edelman.
12. Even that touchdown had a bizarre punctuation mark. Trailing, 28-9, the Patriots lined up to go for 2, but then took a 5-yard delay of game penalty and sent Forbath out for the extra point, which he ended up hooking. Still not sure what the point of taking the penalty was when all it did was make things tougher on yet another new kicker.
13. White ended up scoring a second touchdown with 3 minutes 42 seconds left after Brady scrambled around and threw a dart — perhaps his best pass of the night — to the receiver right at the goal line. That put it at 28-15, but the 2-point conversion throw to Phillip Dorsett fell incomplete, and any thoughts of one more memorable comeback at NRG Stadium were extinguished.
14. The Patriots’ first possession was both a success and a disappointment, but who knew it would be one of their best stretches of the night? They put together a 14-play, 69-yard drive, consumed 7 minutes 1 second of the clock, converted a pair of third downs (on Julian Edelman receptions, naturally), ran it well (Sony Michel picked up 33 yards on six carries), and ended up scoring first on Kai Forbath’s 23-yard field goal.
15. That’s the successful part. The frustrating part should be obvious in that same paragraph: They ended up with just 3 points, a consolation prize if anything on a drive that went so well (did I mention the 17-yard Michel run?) and at one point was in great position for a touchdown, with first and goal at the Houston 7.
16. Josh McDaniels and the Patriots offense got cute, having Brady throw on second and third down. The throw on second down was a high degree of difficulty rollout and throw to the covered Jakobi Meyers just inside the goal line. The third-down throw was wild high over Phillip Dorsett in the back of the end zone.
17. It ultimately ended up a small thing in the game, but it was bewildering. Big receivers Mohamed Sanu and N’Keal Harry were on the sidelines on the third-down throw. And the Patriots had run with success on the drive, attempting just two passes in the first 11 plays. Seems like they overthought it.
18. Dorsett did appear to be open on the play, and it was odd that Cris Collinsworth didn’t acknowledge that on the NBC broadcast. It was almost like he thought Brady was throwing it away, but Brady’s reaction suggested he knew he’d missed a golden opportunity there.
19. Either way, it wasn’t his worst throw of the first quarter. That came on the next drive, when he was picked off by the Texans’ Bradley Roby, who undercut a route to N’Keal Harry as if he knew it was coming. Roby returned it to the Patriots 6. Harry should have put up more of a fight — Roby blew through him to make the play — but the throw was not a wise one.
20. The Texans have high knucklehead quotient on that defense. Barkevious Mingo, the former Patriots special teamer who apparently is still in the league, picked up an unnecessary roughness penalty on the Patriots’ first possession, after a 7-yard loss by Edelman on an end around. It was the biggest play he’s ever made for the Patriots that I can remember.
21. Then, after his interception, Roby ripped off his own helmet, an automatic unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that moved the ball from the Patriots 6 to the 21.That didn’t ultimately cost them — three plays later, Watson found Duke Johnson for a touchdown and a 7-3 lead — but it was dumb nonetheless.
22. Watching your team play against savvy, mobile quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson and to a slightly lesser degree Watson once they get rolling has to be the most stressful thing as a sports fan. Watson was especially elusive and accurate on the Texans’ second scoring drive, an 88-yard, 13-play march that put Houston up, 14-3, in the second.
23. Meanwhile, after the Patriots’ next stalled drive, Brady implored Patriots receivers to . . . well, I’m not sure given a lack of competent lip-reading skills, but he was quite adamant and very agitated. All of the Patriots receivers other than perhaps Edelman might as well have been Joey Galloway to him at that moment.
24. Julian Edelman and James White combined for 14 catches for 203 yards and three touchdowns, with Edelman scoring in the final minute to pull the Patriots within a touchdown in spite of it all. But much of White’s production was in garbage time. And the Patriots’ other receivers — Jakobi Meyers, Phillip Dorsett, Mohamed Sanu, and N’Keal Harry — combined for eight catches on 19 targets for 75 yards.
25. At first I thought the Patriots should have gone for it right before the half while trailing, 14-3, and facing fourth and 10 from the Houston 39. But the reality was that there were no indications that they were capable of converting a big play at that point, and it was probably best to send Jake Bailey out to pin the Texans and prevent them from one more shot at points.
26. J.J. Watt has that annoying Jeterian knack for always looking like he’s aware he’s on camera, thus making his reactions to stuff seem inauthentic. Then again, he pretty much always is on camera, even standing on the Texans sideline last night. NBC liked showing him more than CBS likes showing owners.
27. It’s not the most frustrating aspect of the loss, but it is a bummer that the Patriots can’t make fun of the Texans linebackers for their little game of dress-up when they all arrived for the game dressed as [checks notes] a SWAT team. That was a very Texans thing to do — we all remember when they showed up for a matchup in Foxboro dressed in letterman jackets in 2012.
28. The way this game went, Watson could have arrived dressed as Little Bo Peep with his linemen in sheep’s clothing and we couldn’t have mocked them for it.