Pats right back atop AFC as defense thrashes outmatched Texans

The Patriots recovered from two straight losses and climbed right back up to the top of the AFC after a Sunday night thrashing of the hapless (but still potentially playoff-bound) Houston Texans. 
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When the Patriots blew a 14-point lead in a surprise loss to the Eagles last week, they fell from the AFC's top seed to third in the playoff order. And with tight end Rob Gronkowski out with a knee injury, and the offense poleaxed by all kinds of maladies suffered by blockers and playmakers throughout the season, it appeared as if the Pats were vulnerable to the overtures of the Bengals and Broncos in the conference's pecking order.

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Funny how things can turn back around in a short time for Bill Belichick's crew. The Bengals and Broncos each lost Sunday, and this time around, the Pats weren't going to blow a 14-point lead. Instead, they expounded upon it and blew the Texans out of their own stadium in a 27–6 thrashing. Gronkowski returned, and though he didn't play the full game, he did manage a couple of big plays: a 45-yard catch in the first quarter, when Houston called for linebacker Whitney Mercilus to cover Gronk and Mercilus fell down and a 35-yarder in the second quarter when Gronk beat safety Quinton Demps. Gronkowski also caught a one-yard touchdown in the second quarter, set up by a brilliant play call in which New England started in a tight formation and then motioned three players out wide including Gronkowski. With so many players affected by injuries, it's been up to Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to make up for it with their schematic acumen, and they outdid themselves on this night. Texans head coach Bill O'Brien, who had been part of that staff from 2007 through 2011, could only stand back and watch what was familiar.  

“I was expecting whatever the coaches call,” Gronkowski told NBC's Michele Tafoya after the game. “A type of game plan like that. I knew I wasn't going to go all game, but we just did a great job executing as an offense. But you also have to give credit to our defense—our defense held them to six points. An unbelievable job they did with the good receivers they've got, and they contained the quarterback, too. It was a great team win.”

Indeed, and the real star of this game was a Patriots defense that has been underrated all season. Houston's offensive line kept pass-rusher Chandler Jones relatively in check, but could do little with ends Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard, not to mention recently acquired pass-rushing lineman Akeim Hicks. Both Sheard and Hicks amassed two sacks, and Ninkovich added another. They were helped in their efforts by a Patriots secondary that stuck to Houston's receivers like glue, especially in the final 30 minutes. Before Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer finally connected with DeAndre Hopkins on a 40-yard bomb with 11:11 left in the game, the Texans had gained a grand total of nine yards in the second half. Hoyer finished his day with 11 completions in 22 attempts for 155 yards passing, and the Texans couldn't do a thing in the red zone all night.

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“Everyone just did a good job of staying in their lanes,” Sheard said of the pass rush. “We executed the plan. The secondary played great tonight, and gave us time to get there. It feels good to win again, and get that nasty taste out of your mouth.”

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The Patriots were on the hook for their first three-game losing streak since 2002, and against a Texans offense that couldn't get out of its own way, that task was made easier. It was also made easier by the hand injury that forced J.J. Watt to wear a club cast on his hand. Watt was limited to bull-rushes and arm-over moves, and he couldn't consistently use his hands to jar blockers away from the point of attack and gain separation. He finished his night with two solo tackles, one tackle for loss, and no sacks. Rush linebacker Jadeveon Clowney showed a lot with two sacks of his own, and Houston's defense appeared at times to be handling what New England was dealing on offense, but the consistency wasn't there, especially when Brady was throwing to Gronkowski. Brady was limited in his targets, and he only threw for 226 yards, but the two touchdowns he threw kept his team ahead of the game, even when the special teams miscues that have been biting this team over the last few weeks re-occurred. Receiver Keshawn Martin muffed a punt early in the third quarter, and the Texans recovered at the New England 21-yard line, but they couldn't capitalize. Instead, they went four-and-out, giving the ball back to the Patriots after a seven-yard pass from Hoyer to Hopkins, a one-yard loss on a direct snap play, and two more incomplete passes.

Beyond the limitations of their quarterback, the Texans seem to lack a true offensive philosophy. They struggle to run consistently, they call a ton of deep passes despite the fact that Hoyer doesn't have the arm to be consistent with them, and the recent addition of direct snaps to several different players comprise a distraction in rhythm that is unnecessary and unproductive for the most part. The Texans gained seven first downs and 189 yards in the entire game, and that's not going to beat the Patriots under any circumstances.

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Still, the Texans are in the playoff hunt despite the dismal loss and their 6–7 record, because they play in the AFC South, one of the two least competitive divisions in the league, along with the NFC East. What they got on Sunday night was a definitive primer in just how far they are away from the real contenders.