With three minutes left in the fourth quarter, few people watching this game would have predicted that the Texans would be the ones trying the Hail Mary pass.
Despite getting slammed more often than a testy teenager’s bedroom door, quarterback Tom Brady managed to throw a game-winning touchdown pass to receiver Brandin Cooks with 23 seconds remaining. Brady’s 25-yard arc found Cooks in the left corner of the end zone, allowing the receiver to plant both feet before flopping out-of-bounds with the ball cradled under his arm. (Mostly.)
That play, along with a quick-out to Cooks for the 2-point conversion, gave New England a 36-33 lead that held once safety Duron Harmon intercepted up-and-coming frosh QB Deshaun Watson in the end zone. The win eased fears about an underperforming offense and a less-than-clutch defense, at least for the day.
For a strong visual breakdown of how every play of the drive provided a close call, check out Michael Hurley’s piece on CBS Boston.
The Patriots have a 2-1 record and host Carolina next Sunday at 1 p.m. on FOX. The Panthers, also 2-1, got snared by the Saints this past week, 34-13. Yet another score from this past week I did not expect.
(Just want to get off of football for 10 seconds and ask you to consider supporting efforts to help Puerto Rico. Here’s a link to United for Puerto Rico, where you can donate and seek other ways to help.)
Now, some points of note from the Texans tilt…
Please Remain Tom: Brady spent the day getting pelted, enduring five sacks. In this piece, Greg Bedard of Boston Sports Journal gives a succinct rundown of specific plays where Brady absorbed more shots than a dummy arm at a nursing school. Whether trying to avoid the brute strength of J. J. Watt, the savage quickness of Whitney Mercilus (one sack), or the otherworldly physicality of JaDaveon Clowney (two sacks, including an absolute Venus-flytrapping of the QB at the end of the first quarter), Brady kept looking for receivers and, in general, finding them, going 25 of 35 (71 percent) for 378 yards and five touchdowns. Pretty impressive for anyone, much less a guy forced to slide around like a water strider at a frog convention.
This game was a grind, just the way Houston wanted it to be. At times, the home crowd emitted all the energy of a birthday candle, yet most of them stuck around to watch the big play. The Patriots’ final drive encapsulated the day. You want a roller coaster? I present you with Kingda Ka.
After Houston’s fourth field goal made it 33-28, the Patriots took over at their own 25 with 2:24 left. An incomplete pass to Danny Amendola where the receiver got whacked (ooh!) preceded a completion to Cooks (yay!) that got called back by a holding penalty (come on!). Two passes to tight end Rob Gronkowski sandwiched the two-minute warning – an eight-yarder to set up a challenging-yet-reasonable 3rd and 12, and a 15-yarder that Gronk caught short of the first-down marker. When linebacker Zach Cunningham wrapped his arms around Gronk’s waist, the big tight end toted him like a 215-pound fanny pack for three yards.
First down at their own 38, 1:33 left. Brady to Cooks on an 18-yard out, with Cooks stepping out-of-bounds to stop the clock. First down, Brady sacked by blitzing defensive back Marcus Gilchrist, who knocked the ball loose. Fumble recovered by center David Andrews. Second down, a near-interception where Cooks got out-fought for the ball by safety Corey Moore, who failed to clutch the pigskin to his person.
Third and 18, because, hey, why make it easy? Brady lined a 27-yarder to Amendola, who went up for it like a world-champion dog after a frisbee. First and 10, 29 seconds left, Brady tosses the game winner to Cooks while getting steam-shoveled by Clowney. That’s 34-33, Pats, before tacking on the final two points.
Jules Of Denial: Despite the overall production, at times you could tell this team missed receiver Julian Edelman. It’s not just about Brady’s quick release and his assurance that Edelman will be open for a short pass he can turn into a longer gain. It’s about pride, and confidence. Too often during the heart of the game, it seemed like players were looking around, wondering who was going to make a play. Eventually, a few stepped up.
Gronk, who caught eight passes for 89 yards and a TD, remains a go-to guy. In crunch time, so does Amendola (three catches, 48 yards, including that clutch 27-yarder). Cooks made some strides on Sunday, with 131 yards and two touchdowns on five receptions. On his first score, a 42-yard post in the third quarter, Cooks scooted past a hapless defender and got more into the clear than Barry Bonds. Chris Hogan had a big first half, with four catches for 68 yards and two TDs, one of which (a 47-yarder) provided him more room to run than an Algonquian lacrosse field. Great plays show great future potential. I just wonder who is taking on the role of rally guy? Who’s stalking the sideline, chirping? Stats-wise, they have the players to fill in Edelman’s yardage and receptions. The players who will take his place as leaders are still up to question. The Panthers, who field the best defense in the league in terms of yards allowed (third in points allowed), should provide a strong test.
Down The Dwayne? I mentioned this in last week’s column, and I’ll probably allude to it for the rest of the season, but it looks like tight end Dwayne Allen is taking longer than expected to contribute. He dropped one pass and forced Brady to throw the ball away because Allen couldn’t get open in the flat. Last week, I said that undrafted free agent TE Jacob Hollister could end up with more receptions. So far – after keeping hold of a 19-yard offering where the rookie got pounded and had to go to the sideline – Hollister leads Allen this season, two catches to none. That aforementioned grab, by the way, set up New England’s touchdown to open the second half (the deep post to Cooks).
Allen’s the better blocker, but he seems slow in his patterns and at times seems to mix up his football gloves with oven mitts. Hollister has shown he can catch in traffic, and he could provide mismatches vs. pass defenses. Not saying Allen’s going anywhere, but maybe Hollister should get more time on the field.
Houston, We Have A Cliché: Give credit where it’s due, and it’s due for the Texans. Many saw New England as the easy favorite, possibly overlooking the trouble their offensive line has had vs. Houston’s tough front. It’s not coincidental that this team reminds one of the early 2000s Patriots, as D-coordinator (and former 2000s Patriot linebacker) Mike Vrabel has some special, versatile talent to work with (as well as a young QB who has shown improvement game-by-game). The three defenders mentioned above can rush the passer from anywhere along the line. They can stop the run or drop back into coverage.
New England fans can take heart that very few teams have that combination of talent and coaches who know how to use it. Plus, it’s not like the home team got shut out, here. Even with a tough turnover (fumble return by Clowney for a TD) and a couple of failed third-and-short runs that broke down offensive momentum like it was an old lawn chair, the Pats got some big plays and quite a few points against a defense that rarely gives up either.
Hold That Tiger: The Patriots’ defense had a tough time with former Clemson Tiger Watson, aka “the rookie who refuses to act like it.” Hitting on 67 percent of his passes (22 of 33) for 301 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions (one the result of that Hail Mary), Watson made New England look silly at times. With 5:26 left in the game, the home team trailing by two, the QB shrugged off at least four would-be tacklers, eeling his way open to toss a 31-yarder to Devonte Foreman. (You can watch that maddening play here.)
Watson showed off his inexperience on Houston’s final drive, waiting to call a timeout until only three seconds remained, but that seemed as much a coaching issue as a QB call. In any case, the young man’s occasional inaccuracy and indecision have seemed to subside in the past couple of weeks. The Texans have had more signal-callers in the past several years than most Coast Guard vessels, but it looks like they’ve found their long-term starter.
Stop That Train: The defense had an off day in many ways, from leaving receivers open on scramble situations to giving up third-and-longs, but they made one big play to allow the offense back on the field – stopping running back Lamar Miller for no gain on third and one. D-linemen Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, and the underrated-but-not-for-much-longer Lawrence Guy surged forward to stonewall Miller, setting up a 36-yard field goal by Ka’imi Fairbairn. (In Hawaiian, the name Kaimi means “the seeker.” Dude seeks field goals and gets them: six-for-six so far in his rookie year). Mike Reiss of ESPN.com offers a closer look at that defensive play and its similarity to a more-renowned one in Patriots lore here.
Some decent plays on defense, mixed in with mediocre ones. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore accepted a gift interception, but also got two penalties (tackling someone on the sideline for unnecessary roughness, and pass interference). Pass rusher Cassius Marsh sliced past blockers to sack Watson, but he also tended to motor inside and lose contain on the young QB. Kyle Van Noy had 11 tackles, and also whiffed on an interception attempt that transformed a simple four-yard pass to Freeman into a 35-yard gain. New England’s defense is ranked last in both yards allowed (461) and points scored against (31.7).
Still, most of these issues that showed up vs. Houston seem correctable. Malcolm Butler’s improved play is an encouraging sign, as is the potential return of linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Interesting to see how, in light of Sunday’s contest, Carolina and scrambling QB Cam Newton seek to take advantage of New England’s defense. The Panthers have the 28th-ranked offense in yards per game (277), 29th in points (15.0 ppg), and 30th in passing yards (168.3). Just as the Patriots’ offense will be tested Sunday, how the home team’s D looks vs. this crew will give us a better idea of where the Patriots rank.
Eagle Ian: Boston.com’s Chad Finn said in his post-game notes that Patriots fans are lucky to have Jim Nantz and Tony Romo as the number one announcing team and Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts as the number two. I agree with this assessment.
• Fouts had a quick analysis of Amendola’s 33-yard punt return to set up New England’s first-quarter score, noting that the 65-yard bomberoo from Shane Lechler went too far for the Texans to cover. Before the punt, they also said that Lechler has been in the league for 18 years. (Side note I always love to point out: Lechler was drafted by Oakland in the fifth round, one round before New England’s most prominent sixth-rounder. I mean, Lechler’s a great punter and everything, but no wonder Brady still plays angry.)
• Strong Fouts breakdown of a Clowney sack early in the second quarter. At first look, it seemed that Clowney had simply beaten left tackle Nate Solder to the quarterback. Upon review, though, Fouts pointed out that Watt had pushed his man, guard Joe Thuney, into Solder, nudging the tackle out of position and allowing Clowney a clear path. Tough to watch, but good to know.
• A helpful inside-the-production look from Fouts, who knew that the review of Hogan’s second touchdown in the second quarter, a 47-yarder, would not include an angle at the goal line because the cameras typically used for such views remained closer to the line of scrimmage. Fouts said that, on long plays like that, the cameras can be out of position. Did Hogan get the football over the goal line before his knee hit the ground? The call stood. We’re moving on…
• Two quick negatives for the broadcasters, one apiece. Fouts made a simple mistake, calling out the Texans for a huge penalty that was actually against the Patriots (the pass interference on Gilmore that netted Houston 34 yards). Later, Eagle tried to get a little too cute with defensive back Johnthan Banks’ name. After Cooks’ TD where he beat the oft-picked-on Banks, Eagle said, “Tom Brady may look for the weakness, and Brady continues to take it to the Banks.” Nope. Too much trying in that one. Overall, though, very few complaints with the talent.
Some replays I would have liked to see…
• Gronk’s 22-yard catch and fumble with 1:37 remaining in the first quarter could have used more looks. Not sure how the fumble came about, actually.
• At 1:13 of the second quarter, Marsh stopped Miller for no gain on third and one, forcing the Texans to punt eventually. Hard to tell without the replay how Marsh got it done, or even how much he actually got involved in the play.
• Though they showed replays of the crucial short-yardage stop of Miller with 2:28 left, none of them came from the end zone, making it difficult to determine which linemen did what. Upon several viewings, we can see Branch standing up his blocker and impeding Miller like an SUV stopping a shopping cart, allowing Brown, Guy, and Van Noy time to jump into the pile. It showed strong technique that could have been better illustrated from one end zone or the other.
• New England’s hurry-up offense prevented a replay of Amendola’s clutch catch on third and 18, though showing it later at some point would have been appreciated. The league did provide an in-depth look at the play via “NFL Turning Point,” which shows how Brady broke down the defense before making the throw.
Again: overall, a solid job by CBS this week.
Just A Man And His Will To Survive: So, “Survivor” is coming out with a new show soon, and the theme is “Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers.” Sounds like Les Moonves bought an Alliterative Word Generator. Seems like you could get more random, though. How about “Maidens vs. Mayors vs. Monks?” Or “Charmers vs. Chicks vs. Czechs?”
Have they done a military one yet? They haven’t done a military one yet. I’d tune in to see members of various branches of the armed forces kicking some tail. Get on it, Moonves!
And now, some commercial messages…
Summon Chantix Evening: Seems like a rough choice when deciding whether to quit smoking or endure a list of side effects longer (and more unsettling) than a David Cronenberg script. The Chantix ad featuring Ryan, a nice enough fella, is actually a 15-second promotion for anti-smoking medication followed by 45 seconds of reasons to avoid taking it.
I mean, nicotine withdrawal symptoms? Understandable. But aggression? Suicidal thoughts? Plus, in the fine print, peeling skin or blisters!
I don’t know, man. Have you tried the gum?
The Re-Flex: I love tough-guy ads, and I see more of them during football games than any other time. Dickie’s Flex pants commercials always show guys checking on their all-terrain vehicles, or putting up barbed wire, or nailing shingles to a roof. Considering when most of these ads air, I’d love it if they showed a guy hanging out in a bar, or tailgating. New look for them.
“Dickies: because you can’t work all the time.”
Mmmmm Bacon! Home Depot has an ad for their new pet-proof carpet and stain-resistant flooring that features a child with an unusual pet combo. “This is Emma,” the ad begins. “She has a dog, and a pig.”
Emma, sweetie, this is not happening. One of these four-legged feces dispensers has got to go. Carpeting, flooring, or no, there’s no way I’m living under the same roof as both of these little crappers.
Upcoming Opponent Mascot Etymology: “Panther” is of Greek origin and also related to Latin pardus, for leopard. “Panther” is actually a general term for different types of big cats, like leopards and jaguars.
Upcoming Opponent Site Etymology: “Carolina” comes from the Latin Carolus, for Charles. Both Carolinas were named for King Charles I of England.
I Guess I’ve Got To Say Something: Unusual week around the NFL regarding protests, captured well by CSNNE.com’s Tom E. Curran in his column, “In the end, everyone stood because of the game.” I think what we need to remember is that everyone can have a different opinion, and what the NFL has done well overall is to showcase those different ideas with respect for each individual’s right to do so.
All I’m going to do is resolve to be nice. That’s it. We live in a society where those who put in the effort to be nice to others are too often seen as suckers. Niceness, it seems, no longer gets seen as a virtue, but as a weakness. Considering how difficult being nice can get, I have to disagree.
So, instead of the obvious, sarcastic online response, I’m going to take a minute to a) review what the other person is trying to say, b) take into consideration how he or she feels, and c) have an internal discussion on whether or not I have to respond, because probably not. Maybe that should be Twitter’s new slogan: “Should I say something here? Probably not.”
Anyway, have a nice weekend. Here’s hoping your team plays well, whoever they happen to be.
Chris Warner’s high school classmates voted him Most Polite. He has an email at email@example.com and a Twitter feed @cwarn89.