FOXBORO – Two things were certain as Saturday night’s Divisional Playoff game unfolded.
First, there was no way the Patriots were actually going to lose to a team with an offense that couldn’t score 20 points if it was on the field by itself for 60 minutes. Second, Bill Belichick was going to be amusingly blunt about how badly his team played on offense, despite the fact it put up 27 points on a Texans defense that hadn’t allowed more than that since October 9.
“We have to play better, we have to coach better than we did tonight, or there won’t be much left in our season,” said Belichick.
PATRIOTS 34, TEXANS 16
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Belichick can start stretching out his thumb for a very busy session of play-rewind-play-rewind-play when he gets the full team together for a rehashing of the things that weren’t pretty in the team’s 18-point win over Houston.
He can zero in on cornerback Eric Rowe trying to play bouncer after a mini-fracas broke out in the first quarter, drawing a drive-extending penalty that led to a Texans field goal. He can highlight Michael Floyd’s attempted lunge-dive at a slant pass that Floyd redirected for an interception leading to a touchdown. He can ask Floyd why he decided to block downfield in the middle of running a route, drawing a flag. He can ask Floyd why he dawdled on another route that almost led to a pick. He can ask Tom Brady why he forced a pass into Julian Edelman that got picked and why Brady threw three feet behind Edelman on a third-down play. He can skip over Dion Lewis’ three touchdowns and key in on his two fumbles – one of which led to a field goal. He can spend time on center David Andrews getting turnstiled by Whitney Mercilus on a pair of third downs leading to Brady sacks. He can ask Duron Harmon exactly what he was doing when he opted to ignore tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz on the Texans’ lone touchdown. He’ll probably find plenty of other plays to gnaw on as well.
And by the time he’s done, his properly chastened team will begin preparation for its record sixth straight conference championship game.
Which, he’ll remind his team, will be a nationally televised humiliation if the Patriots slap it out there (a term he favors) next Sunday night.
“You’re one of four teams that’s left after the weekend, but again, I mean I don’t really care about the other five years right now, or however many years it’s been (making it to the Conference Championship),” Belichick said. “The only thing that matters is this year, this team, and what we have an opportunity to do, what we need to do to move on to play again. We can talk about all of that other stuff some other time. For right now, it’s just this team and getting to the AFC Championship Game and playing our best game next weekend. That’s what we’re going to need to do. We’re going to need to play our best game, better than we played tonight.”
Was it that bad? Yes and no. Yes, relative to what the Patriots are accustomed to doing in terms of execution. No, because the Texans’ defense is really good and they had two players – Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney – who were playing like their hair was on fire.
“They’re one of the best defenses in the league,” Belichick replied when asked how much Houston had to do with the Patriots looking average. “I mean, I don’t think there’s any question about that. Whatever stat you want to look at – they turn the ball over, they’re good on third down, they’re good in the red area, they’re good against the run, good against the pass, they’re good against everything. But [we made] a lot of mistakes . . . we had penalties, we had dropped balls, we threw the ball right to them, we fumbled it. Give them credit, but we’ve got to do better than that. We’re going to play against another good defense this week.”
There will be a school of thought that this was a great outcome for the Patriots. They won and now Belichick has a magazine full of ammo to direct at his team. I wouldn’t go that far. That would insinuate that he didn’t have his team’s full attention before this game, that they didn’t put forth full effort. That wasn’t the case. This wasn’t lack of effort. It was getting made to feel uncomfortable and – but for the grace of a few chuck-and-duck prayers Brady threw up that were answered – putting together an offensive performance that absolutely would get them beat by most any team still in the playoffs other than Houston.
Their first touchdown drive consisted of a 30-yard PI, an underthrown, under pressure 22-yarder to Chris Hogan and a 13-yard screen pass touchdown to Lewis.
Their next touchdown came on a 98-yard kickoff return. Their final three points of the first half were thanks in large part to a 48-yard fling to Edelman and were four less than they normally get when they have first-and-goal at the 3, as they did.
They had a terrific 90-yard drive early in the third for a touchdown and their last touchdown came after they took over at the Houston 6 following an interception.
Neither Kansas City nor Pittsburgh – both of whom can play a little offense – went to bed quaking at the invincibility of the Patriots.
“It was a lot of things I think between what they were doing and what we were doing that were causing us problems,” said Brady. “It was just very inconsistent for us all the way around. We just didn’t do enough in any area, but they’ve got a good defense . . .
“We just didn’t do a great job executing,” he added later. “The turnovers obviously hurt us quite a bit, so we’ve got to try to tighten those things up this week. Whoever we play next week is going to be a great football team and we’re going to have to play better than we played tonight on offense.”
Play better or the season will die. That will be the message sent over and over this week. And it’s a fact. Because even though that big “34” next to “Patriots” on the scoreboard seems impressive, the road they took to that number on Saturday night is not a road a team can survive on very long.