In a classic NFL “throw the records out the window” game, the 9-3 New England Patriots held on to defeat the 2-10 Houston Texans 34-31. Given last year’s decisive victories by the Patriots in their two matchups, combined with an underachieving season in Houston, many expected yet another blowout. But with New England coming off back-to-back hard-fought battles against the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, the Texans took advantage and gave everything they had behind a strong performance from first-year starting quarterback Case Keenum. However, the Patriots proved too strong in the end as a pair of Stephen Gostkowski 53-yard field goals proved the difference in the fourth quarter.
New England’s win keeps them in the race for the AFC’s top seed while Houston takes the lead in the race for the No. 1 pick in the draft. Here’s a look at Sunday’s key performances.
New England – Three Performances of Note
Gredelman Gets It Done
When QB Tom Brady needed a big play, he had two clear cut choices in tight end Rob Gronkowski (+4.8) and wide receiver Julian Edelman (+2.7) who combined for 15 catches for 228 yards and a touchdown. Gronkowski provided a vertical presence in the middle of the field, starting with a 23 yard touchdown with 1:33 to go in the first quarter and later on a 50-yard completion as he beat linebacker Daryl Sharpton up the seam at the 13:43 mark of the third quarter. Edelman was the chain mover as seven of his nine receptions went for first downs. He had his way with cornerback Kareem Jackson early in the third quarter as he shook him on a corner route for a 25-yard gain on Brady’s best throw of the day and then came back two plays later and took the quick screen and juked Jackson to force the missed tackle and yet another first down.
As the Patriots offense continues to hit its stride, Gronkowski has certainly been a big part of the success, but Edelman has quietly graded out at +6.7 over his last two games, going over 100 yards in each.
Linebackers Make Little Impact
New England’s run defense took its lumps once again this week, but it didn’t go exactly as it has throughout the season. Since defensive tackle Vince Wilfork went down to injury, the replacement defensive tackles have had their issues at the point of attack, but linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower have generally been able to make up for a less than stellar front. That wasn’t the case Sunday as the defensive line did a fair job against the run, but Spikes and Hightower looked out of place. Spikes, who may be playing hurt, lacked his usual aggressiveness that sees him attack the line of scrimmage. He was caught reading and reacting a bit too much and Texans running backs had little resistance from him at the second level. Look no further than RB Ben Tate’s touchdown at the 11:39 mark of the fourth quarter as Spikes hesitated then tried to side-step left guard Wade Smith’s block and easily got sealed inside as Tate ran by untouched. Spikes’ -1.6 run stop grade was easily his worst of the season. As for Hightower, he was similarly hesitant at times, and subsequently missing out on opportunities to get in on tackles near the line of scrimmage. Like Spikes, he also notched his worst run stop grade of the season at -1.2.
Solder Bounces Back
After two subpar outings, including a -5.4 performance a week ago at the hands of Von Miller and the Broncos, left tackle Nate Solder showed well Sunday grading at +5.6 for the game. He surrendered one sack, though most of the offensive line appeared confused by Houston’s blitz and he gave up only one other pressure on his 43 pass block attempts to grade at +2.0 as a pass blocker on the day. His finest work came in the running game where his +3.1 grade represented his best mark since Week 4. New England ran power his way throughout the afternoon and he was consistently able to collapse the point of attack while also finding targets at the second level. He even got the best of DE J.J. Watt as he pinned him inside at the 11:45 mark of the first quarter but a failed block by fullback James Develin limited the play to a 1 yard gain. It was a good overall game for Solder who combined with LG Logan Mankins (+2.1) to carry the Patriots’ offensive line.
Houston – Three Performances of Note
De Ja Vu: Outside Linebackers Fail to Produce
One of the most common themes when discussing the Texans is there impressive pass rush from Watt and fellow defensive end Antonio Smith and the inability of the edge rushers to complement their elite interior presence. Outside linebackers Whitney Mercilus and Brooks Reed graded at -2.6 and -2.8 respectively, combining for just three measly hurries on 72 pass rush attempts. The lack of outside linebacker production has been the norm in Houston as Mercilus and Reed have combined to grade at -24.7 on the season, a year removed from the duo combining with departed OLB Connor Barwin to grade at -21.5. On a brighter note, Mercilus and Reed each graded at +0.7 in in the running game, but their inability to affect the quarterback is one of the major weaknesses on Houston’s defense.
De Ja Vu: Right Tackle Struggles
It was as if all was right in Houston in regard to their major team weaknesses standing out. They continue to struggle at the right tackle position as Derek Newton graded at -1.7 on his 33 snaps while Ryan Harris graded at -2.1 on his 27. Newton only surrendered one pressure, but his -2.4 run block grade came mostly at the hands of DT Joe Vellano continuously got inside his blocks. Harris had his struggles in the passing game where he gave up two hits and two hurries on just 18 forays into pass protection, all coming at the hands of DE Rob Ninkovich. Despite Ninkovich rushing from a position over the slot, he was still able to toss Harris aside to get the hit on Case Keenum at the 0:51 mark of the first quarter. Just as outside linebacker has been a major issue, and one that was present even during the Texans’ 11-1 start last year, right tackle continues to underperform and it looks like Houston has two clear offseason needs that must be addressed.
Andre Still Dependable
Among Houston’s bright spots on offense, WR Andre Johnson got open throughout the day despite a healthy mix of coverages from New England. He found himself wide open running through the middle of the field on crossing routes early in the game before holding his own against CB Aqib Talib in man coverage. Johnson tried to set the tone on the Texans’ game winning drive attempt as he kicked it off with a nifty sideline catch after a Keenum scrambled before following it up by getting open on yet another scramble drill on the very next play. It was all for not, however, as Houston’s comeback fell short, but Johnson’s eight catches for 121 yards and +4.1 PFF Grade were a big reason the Texans were able to score 31 points on the day.
-Last season, the Texans blitzed Brady 54 percent of the time in their two meetings with Brady completing 27-of-41 passes for 375 yards, six touchdowns and a +6.1 PFF Rating. On Sunday, Houston changed it up and blitzed only 38 percent of the time but Brady still torched with going 10-of-15 for 171 yards and a +2.8 PFF Grade.
-After three straight double-digit positive grades (a PFF record), Watt was held to “only” a +5.8 grade that included three QB hits, a batted pass, and three stops in the running game.
-After a slow start to the season, Texans LT Duane Brown posted his fifth straight positive game including a perfect day in pass protection.
PFF Game Ball
TE Rob Gronkowski provided big plays in the passing game to go with his stellar run blocking, so his +4.8 overall grade nets him this week’s game ball.
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