New England held the lead wire to wire, outgaining the Texans 313 to 189 and never letting the result of this one be put into serious doubt (despite yet anothrt 3rd quarter 14 point lead and muffed punt after a defensive stop).
Here are five things we learned from the victory:
Patriots defense is dominant.
New England had a bit of a stop-and-go game on offense, but man, was the defense dominating. They did it in all facets. They stuffed the run. They were disciplined. They were after Bryan Hoyer all game. They tackled well. They played well in man. Their safeties did a solid job on the back-end. There were strong performances all over the board. Jabaal Sheard was dominating, picking up two sacks and two forced fumbles. The second strip-sack was recovered by New England within Houston's ten and helped the Patriots put the game out of reach. Linebacker Jerod Mayo played big snaps with Jonathan Freeny hurt, and had his best game of the season, making several big plays against the run and finishing second on the Patriots in tackles. Other strong contributors included Akiem Hicks, Rob Ninkovich, Logan Ryan, and Malcolm Butler. For the game, the Patriots picked up six sacks and allowed just six points, 189 yards, 3-14 third downs.
Rob Gronkowski is back, and so is the Patriots' offense.
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski returned to the line-up against the Texans after missing just a single game with a bone bruise in his knee. He got back on track immediately. Gronkowski beat a Texans linebacker for a 45-yard catch and run to set up the team's first touchdown in the first quarter. In the closing moments of the first half, he caught an endzone fade from a yard out to put the Patriots up 17-6 heading into the intermission. Overall, he played more than half the team's snaps, looked healthy and confident, and should be back to a full-time role very soon. The Patriots offense seemed a lot more comfortable with him out there, and they will thrive to finish the season as a result.
Patriots can't avoid the injury bug.
Easley, Blount, Freeny, McCourty. Yes, the Patriots lost four key starters/contributors to injury in this one. It's getting borderline unbelievable. LeGarrette Blount got off to a great start before injuring his hip in the second quarter. Brandon Bolden took his place and played very well in his place. Dominique Easley had his knee buckle on a pass rush in the second half, and it did not initially look good. However, he stayed on the field and was warming up on the bike. Devin McCourty, who would be the biggest loss of the four if he were to miss significant time, went to the locker room for x-rays on an ankle injury and did not return.
New England can slow your best offensive weapon.
The Patriots did a fantastic job slowing down Houston's superstar wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins. Contrary to what most predicted, the Patriots did not shadow Malcolm Butler on Hopkins. Instead, they placed Logan Ryan on Hopkins and had a safety over the top to help. That left Butler on Nate Washington. Aside from one long gain where Butler bit on a Washington double move, he shut him down. Ryan did an admirable job on Hopkins, who finished with just three catches (his first time being held under five all year).
New England can slow your best defensive weapon.
The Patriots offensive line had a really strong game until the final 20 minutes, and a big part of that was containing defensive MVP J.J. Watt. Watt, the NFL's leader in sacks heading into this week, was held without one tonight. The Patriots constantly brought double teams on him and longer-developing and run plays. On quick throws, they allowed him to go one-on-one on occasion. Marcus Cannon was able to hold his own on an island on several occasions. Watt did make a couple of plays, but was visibly frustrated. Much like the Patriots' were able to take out the Texans' best offensive player in Hopkins, the team produced an effective game plan to take out Houston's best defensive player too.