The New England Patriots won an ugly game in Houston on Sunday. Patriots Nation was panicking at halftime, but the team ended up coming back in the second half to beat the Texans with a final score of 25-22. It might have been ugly, but an ugly win is better than a pretty loss.
Here are my 10 takeaways from Houston.
1. The Damien Harris question: Damien Harris fumbled in the red zone for the second time in five games. Him putting the ball on the ground is simply inexcusable, and he needs to be better than that. This takeaway, however, is about more than his performance, because he also left the game with an injury in the fourth quarter. If he is unable to come back next week, the Patriots are going to be extremely short-handed at running back. I’m not going to question the Sony Michel trade, because I believe they made the right decision, but with James White done for the year as well, and with Harris now potentially missing some time he would certainly help with the depth. Harris has had a disappointing season thus far, but he’s still far and away the best back on the team, so I’m hopeful that he isn’t injured for long. For what it’s worth, teammate Rhamondre Stevenson gave an encouraging update after Sunday’s game.
2. Coaching concerns: Even when the Patriots didn’t have the best talent in the league, they were always one of the smartest teams around. They would not make the mental errors that other teams made. Tackling, pursuit angles, penalties, and general execution by the players on the field was never a concern. It has been this year, however, and this was on full display once again against the Texans: Devin McCourty took a terrible angle on a long touchdown pass; they also had quite a few mental mistakes offensively and defensively. Bill Belichick demands a lot from his players and staff, and right now is not getting nearly enough from those around him. He is obviously part of that, but it is also good to remember that they have some young coaches that are still learning. Those guys better figure it out quickly, because you simply cannot expect to win football games making so many preventable errors.
3. Matthew Judon is incredible: As much as the Patriots defense has struggled at times, one of their players has been dominant. That guy is Matthew Judon, who has been simply incredible. He has had a sack in every game since the season opener, and added two more on Sunday to bring his total to 6.5 on the season. It is not just his ability to sack the QB either, he has been dominant against the run as well. To top it all off, he is a perfect player for this organization, as he appears to be a leader both on and off the field. Judon was a big free agent signing this offseason, and, so far, he has been worth every penny. He also has a budding Twitter friendship with Donovan Mitchell, which has Celtics fans excited too.
4. Replacement line: The Patriots were without four of their five starters along the offensive line. There was a ton of concern going into the game: Since the starters have struggled so far this season, what would the backups look like? Turns out they played admirably. James Ferentz didn’t have a great day, and Ted Karras got beat a few times, but, overall, they were pretty good. Yodny Cajuste looked comfortable at right tackle, and Justin Herron played much better at left tackle than he has at the right side the last few games. In fact, I would argue that Sunday might have been the best overall performance by the offensive line unit. Granted, it was against the lowly Texans, but there is a lot to like about the depth along the line. David Andrews needs his own shoutout, because he was able to play with four backups around him and still have a solid game, and limit the missed assignments. All in all, some solid work by the offensive line, especially considering the circumstances.
5. Hunter Henry shines: Henry had a coming-out party in Houston, racking up six catches for 75 yards and a touchdown. He was open frequently, and Mac Jones found him quite a bit. Every one of his catches seemed to be either a first down or a big play. This is the type of performance that the Patriots were expecting when they signed Henry in the spring. This also comes on the heels of Henry catching his first touchdown as a member of the Patriots last week. If he can continue to improve and be a more consistent target, that is going to help out Jones and the offense significantly.
6. Mac Jones’ first career comeback: Jones struggled during the first half of this game. He was throwing balls behind receivers, and threw quite a few passes that should have been picked off, with one of them actually getting intercepted early in the third quarter. He rallied after that pick, however, and led the Patriots to a comeback victory while scoring 16 straight. The Patriots put points on the board on their last four possessions; on those drives, Jones was 11-for-12 for 106 yards and a touchdown. He is going to need to be more consistent, but the poise that he continues to show week-to-week has been impressive. Not impressive for a rookie, impressive for an NFL quarterback. He finished the game 23-for-30 with 231 yards passing with a touchdown and a pick. He pushed the ball downfield more Sunday than he had in weeks past, and his performance should go a long way to silencing some of his doubters. There’s a long way to go, but there continues to be optimism for the future of this team and its young passer.
7. Pass defense: It is tough to play worse defense than the Patriots played in the first half against Houston. They made Davis Mills, who had 87 passing yards last week, look like an All-Pro. They played like a different team in the second half, and I wonder if some of the reason for that was the personnel. After the break, they decided to play with six true defensive backs consistently (Myles Bryant saw significant second-half snaps), and they were able to limit the Texans to no points after they scored on a flea flicker following Jones’ interception to start the third quarter. They are not going to be able to do that every week, especially with their inability to stop the run, but for this week, the change was key to them winning.
8. Kyle Van Noy: Van Noy came back after a year away in Miami, and many people thought that he was going to really help out the Patriots linebacker situation. That has not been the case so far, unfortunately. He has looked slow at times, and struggled against both the pass and run. There were multiple plays on Sunday where he looked lost in coverage, and someone ended up wide open. The most obvious instance was a 27-yard third-down pass where it looked as if he simply did not know where to go, and the ball went directly over his head for a long gain. I like Van Noy, but I am ready to give his spot to Jamie Collins if he continues his up-and-down play: he is significantly more athletic than Van Noy. Give Collins a shot at his spot and see what happens, because I don’t think you can get significantly worse production than you’ve gotten out of that position so far.
9. Resilience: The Patriots were favored by 7.5 points on Sunday and playing one of the worst teams in the league. Yet they trailed 15-9 at halftime. They got the ball back to start the second half, Jones immediately threw a pick, and Texans answered with a long touchdown two plays later. Down 22-9, it would have been easy for the Patriots to pack it in. They didn’t, however: they would shut out the Texans the rest of the way through, and score 16 unanswered points to win 25-22. New England showing the willingness to fight and not give up is a great sign. You have to love the heart of this team, and, if it can play more consistently, it can still be a team that everyone is going to hate playing this season.
10. Being in Houston: I was in Houston for the game, and one takeaway, other than the fact that they have air conditioning at NRG Stadium — which was glorious — was that Patriots fans are a rare breed. Gillette Stadium gets significantly louder and the fans are more passionate by far. The game was fun, and all the people I interacted with have been great, but they are nothing like the fans that we have in New England. Maybe some of it comes from winning, but the passion of the fans in New England is hard to match. With the dynasty over, and the Patriots being just another NFL team at the moment, there might be some fan bases that would lose interest. I have full confidence, however, that this fan base will continue to have as much passion as it always had.