Sunday, January 15, 2017

Patriots Pull Away Late for 34-16 Win Over Texans

In a game that more closely resembled the preseason than the playoffs, the Patriots rode a dominant second half to a 34-16 win over the Houston Texans yesterday. The victory was fueled by the defense, big plays on offense, and an historic first for Pats running back Dion Lewis. Next Sunday the Patriots host the AFC Championship Game for the seventh time since Robert Kraft bought the team in 1993.

Houston employed a unique defensive approach, flooding the middle of the field to stop the run and most short passes. This forced the Pats to throw deeper than usual and outside the numbers, which is not their normal offense, and their frustration showed. However, once they figured things out, they used big plays to turn field position and score.

Quarterback Tom Brady was under pressure all day long, as the Texans used multiple blitz looks to get free rushers. When they rushed just three, Brady had all day, but that was rare in the game; he ended up being sacked twice and hit eight other times. His stat line was poor: 18 of 38 (47%) for 287 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions (as many interceptions as he threw all regular season), and a 68.6 QB rating. And he could easily have been picked a third time.

His receivers did a great job adjusting to long passes that were either jump balls or thrown short to keep the ball away from defenders. Julian Edelman (8 catches for 137 yards) and Chris Hogan (4 for 95) caught long passes that flipped field position, mostly down the sidelines, and mostly on throws that required excellent adjustments on their part. Newcomer Michael Floyd just wasn't in sync with Brady; their missed timing on slants cost one interception and nearly a second. More work to do before he's a big part of the offense.

The Patriots running game was non-existent until the fourth quarter. 70 of their 98 yards came in the final 15 minutes, including a few wide-receiver runs and two reverses. Other than that, they were stoned time and again. And given the amount of pressure on Brady, the backs deserve a bad grade for picking up blitzers, too.

The best things the running backs did all day were the two touchdown catches. Dion Lewis took a short throw and ran around end for a 13-yarder. And James White outran a linebacker to get open down the right side where Brady hit him with a perfect rainbow pass. The worst thing the RBs did was the two fumbles by Lewis; one as a back and one as a kickoff returner.

The offensive line was alternatively really bad and really solid. They looked confused by blitz schemes and stunts, allowing untouched rushers to crush Brady repeatedly. But when they faced three or four rushers, they held stronger than that amazing wall they are planning on the Mexican border. Still, with the poor rushing attack and too much pressure on the QB, they get a bad grade. Nate Solder and center David Andrews looked particularly overmatched most of the game.

The defensive star of the game was cornerback Logan Ryan. He had a sack, a tackle for a loss, a QB hit, an interception, knocked away three passes, and made eight total tackles. Safety Patrick Chung was solid in coverage, and Devin McCourty had an interception and broke up the pass that turned into Ryan's interception. However, Eric Rowe gets the booby prize for the day, giving up at least four receptions and committing a boneheaded personal foul penalty that extended a Texans drive on which they scored.

Dont'a Hightower led the linebackers with eight tackles, though Rob Ninkovich had a better rounded game with two tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss, a QB hit, and even an pass defended. Kyle Van Noy was more up-and-down; made some nice plays down the field but almost no impact near the line of scrimmage. And Shea McClellin and Elandon Roberts showed their inexperience in this one, neither making the plays that were there to make and both busily taking on blockers when they should have been making tackles.

Three of the defensive linemen played pretty well. Alan Branch had seven tackles, Trey Flowers had seven, and Malcom Brown had six tackles and a sack. But they only get okay reviews because they gave up long running plays and didn't generate enough pressure in the first half. Once the team made adjustments for the second half things went better, but that doesn't wipe out a mediocre first half. Noteworthy is that Jabaal Sheard reverted to form, pushing his rush lane too far inside and giving up running plays and one huge QB scramble to his side.

Special teams kicking was great; Stephen Gostkowski was perfect on the day and punter Ryan Allen had two more kicks downed inside the Houston five yard-line. But Lewis offset his 98-yard kickoff return touchdown with a fumble later in the half that helped get Houston back in the game.

So where does that leave us? Hosting the AFC Championship Game is about as good as you could hope for at this point in the season. The winner of the Kansas City/Pittsburgh game tonight will travel to Foxboro to play for a Super Bowl berth.

The Patriots have one health concern; tight end Martellus Bennett left the game limping, and he's their only decent tight end. So here's hoping he is a fast healer.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Logan Ryan takes it this time; his play was crucial to stopping the Texans on at least three drives.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Lewis' is the first player in NFL history to record a running TD, passing TD, and return TD in the same playoff game.

Bonus Statistical Oddity: Allen's second stellar performance. How often does a punter have two punts downed inside the five yard-line in two games against the same team in one season?

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Warm ups are over, next week it'll be a real team and the Pats will need to play better for sure."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 15-2 & 1-0!

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