The NRG Stadium roof opened as the New England Patriots arrived Sunday.
But head coach Bill Belichick’s side would depart with a 27-20 loss to Romeo Crennel’s Houston Texans, and with a 4-6 record on the regular season.
Here’s a glance through what went into it.
Watson gets the best of the New England secondary in Gilmore’s return
The questionable designation had become a frequent one for Stephon Gilmore. Though after three games among the scratched due to an October knee injury, the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year traveled to Houston for Week 11.
There waiting was dart-throwing quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Watson wasn’t sacked nor picked Sunday. He went 28-of-37 passing for 344 yards instead, and 14-of-19 when looking for his Texans wide receivers. Ex-Patriot Brandin Cooks had his share. Cooks broke free for a 44-yard gain out of a bunch formation in the first quarter that saw Gilmore and fellow starting cornerback J.C. Jackson caught in traffic. The lapse helped set up a touchdown to slanting veteran Randall Cobb versus Patriots safety Devin McCourty. And with 10 seconds to go before halftime, the Texans’ lead swelled to 21-10 as Keke Coutee worked the back of the end zone on a scramble drill opposite slot corner Jonathan Jones. Vertical threat Will Fuller made his speed felt on four double-digit pickups after intermission, as well.
Harris retains the reins at running back, but sees carries taper off
The Patriots activated Sony Michel from injured reserve on the eve of the 1 p.m. ET kickoff. But 90 minutes prior to it Sunday, the former first-round pick out of Georgia went to the inactives list.
It’d be the seventh start in a row for a running back who’d averaged 5.5 yards per carry over the course of 85 in Michel’s absence.
Damien Harris attacked the edges early, handling five carries for 25 yards and a touchdown on the opening drive. But the 2019 third-rounder out of Alabama gathered just three more attempts before the half. Harris finished with 43 yards on the ground versus a Houston defense that entered with a league-high 1,507 allowed there. He rushed 11 times altogether while playing through ankle and chest ailments that kept him limited in practice.
Patriots debuts on both sides of the ball
New England had three new faces in uniform.
Veteran receiver Donte Moncrief made his debut as a standard elevation, caught a 15-yarder and filled in on the punt unit after signing to the practice squad to begin November. Also on the field for the Patriots were a pair of recent waiver claims in tight end Jordan Thomas and defensive tackle Isaiah Mack.
Sunday stood on the calendar as a reunion for Thomas. The Mississippi State product caught 21 passes for 223 yards and four touchdowns with the Texans after landing at No. 211 overall in 2018. He was let go by the organization that drafted him at the league’s roster deadline this September. And on occasion, he was the lone tight end on the field for the Patriots, rotating in for Ryan Izzo and drawing one target.
Burkhead carted to the locker room following third-quarter knee injury
A third-and-1 collision with Texans cornerback Bradley Roby saw Rex Burkhead leave the game in the third quarter.
The all-purpose running back would be carted from the blue medical tent to the locker room and quickly ruled out with a knee injury. Harris and captain James White took on the remainder of the volume in his absence. Entering Sunday, Burkhead had accounted for 454 yards and six touchdowns from scrimmage on the season. His 104 snaps on New England’s special teams over that span ranked behind only punter Jake Bailey, linebacker Brandon Copeland and gunners Justin Bethel and Matthew Slater.
Starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn walked slowly to the New England sideline with under two minutes remaining after getting rolled up on. Jermaine Eluemunor stepped in at the bookend spot.
Close-to-the-line role gives way to hits and misses for Dugger
A week removed from logging a career-high 57 snaps and a dozen tackles versus reigning MVP Lamar Jackson’s Baltimore Ravens, Kyle Dugger started once again. And hit once again.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound safety by way of Lenoir-Rhyne continued as a big nickel for New England, scanning for cutbacks and closing on the ball in the land of defensive tackles. That’s where Dugger found Texans running back Duke Johnson at the line of scrimmage with a pop as well as a stop for loss.
Dugger totaled six tackles on Sunday. But covering tight end Jordan Akins brought challenges. The rookie conceded 25 yards on a third-down post route that led to a bulldozing touchdown by Houston’s Pro Bowl QB. And as halftime neared, Dugger was flagged for illegal contact while jamming Akins off the snap. Sophomore Patriots defensive back Joejuan Williams spelled in to face Akins, who later turned another third down into a first against Dugger in the flat.
Byrd finds the end zone, posts career-high 132 receiving yards in defeat
Cam Newton found Damiere Byrd for their first touchdown since 2017 with the Carolina Panthers.
It reached the gamebook at the 8:20 mark in the third quarter of an 11-point Patriots deficit, as the quarterback hit the wide receiver on the money and over the shoulders from 41 yards out against cornerback Phillip Gaines.
Byrd posted a career-high 132 receiving yards in his first game beyond the century mark. Newton went 6-of-7 when throwing Byrd’s direction and threw for 365 yards in all. But the New England offense had four seconds and no timeouts when he threw his last. The Texans sacked Newton twice on an afternoon in which NFL All-Decade defensive lineman J.J. Watt batted down four passes.