In two planes, the New England Patriots made their way through quarantine and to NRG Stadium.
A Houston Texans team that entered atop the AFC South met them there. And so did a 28-22 defeat.
The injury report that became 33 percent of the New England roster, with 10 of whom battling the flu, gave way to few absences by Sunday night’s kickoff. But the chance to clinch a playoff spot as the calendar turned to December would go missing. The chance to retain the conference’s top seed would, too, as the Patriots moved to 10-2.
Here’s a touchdown of observations.
Houston’s No. 1 steps in to face New England’s
A week after pitching a shutout versus Dallas Cowboys wideout Amari Cooper, another No. 1 stepped into the batter’s box face NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate Stephon Gilmore.
Texans wideout DeAndre Hopkins dug in his cleats having ranked second in the league in receptions this season, and having been named a first-team All-Pro in consecutive seasons. Starting across from New England’s reigning All-Pro, Hopkins and his baseball-glove hands drew eight targets from quarterback Deshaun Watson. Those targets netted five completions for 64 yards. The first of which came on Houston’s second drive, in the middle of zone coverage, on a third-and-4 post route for a gain of 17. The Patriots also mixed in double-teams against Hopkins, who made his first one-on-one grab against Gilmore before halftime on a slant pattern from the slot. His next catches in Gilmore’s vicinity came on slants and posts in the final frame.
“I think he defines an NFL receiver,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of Hopkins leading up to Sunday’s meeting. “If you open ‘NFL receiver’ in the dictionary, put his picture next to it.”
Patriots’ kicking carousel continues to spin
Kai Forbath’s signing became official on Friday. And on Sunday, the 32-year-old became the fourth kicker to attempt a field goal for New England this campaign.
At the 7:07 mark in the first quarter, Forbath struck a 23-yarder through the uprights to give New England the game’s first points. He’d later miss an extra point, pushed back by a delay-of game-penalty, in the third quarter of his debut. The UCLA product previously appeared in three games with the Jacksonville Jaguars last December, and had made good on 85.7 percent of his field goals through stints with the Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints, Washington Redskins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cowboys dating back to 2011.
The Patriots waived Nick Folk with the non-football illness designation to open a roster spot for Forbath. Folk, who’d gone 7-of-9 on field goals and converted each of his PATs since replacing Mike Nugent, underwent an appendectomy on Thanksgiving. The kicking carousel has continued to spin since Stephen Gostkowski went to injured reserve in September.
Pick sends Texans on the attack
Late in the first quarter, an in-cut by Patriots first-round pick N’Keal Harry got undercut.
Texans corner Bradley Roby intercepted Tom Brady, and returned the quarterback’s pass to the doorstep of the red zone. Houston was in the end zone three plays later, making it 7-3 as Watson found running back Duke Johnson in a mismatch with linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
Van Noy, fresh off notching a career-high 6.5 sacks, could not track down Johnson in the flat. And from 14 yards out he went. It was a sequence that began with a lack of separation and a pass that Brady could not throw open. It was a sequence that’d see the Texans bring a similar field-widening approach with backs and tight ends as recent offenses before them. The 6-foot-7, 270-pound Darren Fells collected a 13-yard score on Houston’s next drive as the score swelled to 14-3. A deep shot to receiver Kenny Stills over nickelback Jonathan Jones followed in the second half. As did a reach over the pylon on a trick shot to Houston’s QB.
Sony Michel’s usage runs hot and cold
The Patriots’ opening drive brought six carries for 33 yards courtesy of Michel. The former Georgia running back carried the ball just once more by intermission as personnel went from heavy to light.
Michel had averaged 4.3 yards per carry the week before versus Dallas, breaking off four runs of double-digit yards to finish with 85.
The No. 31 overall pick in the 2018 draft returned to take the first handoff of the second half Sunday. Additional looks were in the cards in a company that included linebacker-slash-fullback Elandon Roberts and tight ends Ben Watson and Matt LaCosse. But Michel closed out the game with 45 rushing yards on 10 opportunities.
Wire-to-wire streak ends
The lone Patriot to play every offensive snap in 2019 would miss his first.
Ted Karras, who had stepped in as the starting center as captain David Andrews’ season ended in August, had played all 798 before Sunday. But Karras exited for the locker room in the third quarter.
The fourth-year offensive lineman out of Illinois was subsequently ruled out by the team due to a knee injury. James Ferentz took over at the pivot spot for the remainder of the game.
White a silver lining on a long night for New England’s offense
New England’s quarterback was sacked three times and completed 24-of-47 passes. But Brady did complete three touchdowns on a night where options proved fleeting.
The last went to wideout Julian Edelman, who eclipsed the century mark in receiving yards. The previous pair went to running back James White.
White finished with eight receptions for 98 yards to go with the points, and also walked away with a career-long rush of 32 yards while compiling a team-high 79 on the ground. The 177 yards of scrimmage stand as a new apex for White. He touched the ball three times the week prior.