Last Sunday’s win over the Ravens was the wind beneath Patriots fans’ wings. This loss to the Texans? Like a fart in an elevator.
Spend all the time you want diagramming “playoff paths” and patiently waiting for teams ahead of New England in the AFC to commence peeing down their legs.
The Patriots are – at best – mediocre.
The realization stinks. And you just can’t get away from it.
What we have here is a well-coached team with a self-inflicted talent deficit on offense and an opt-out aided experience deficit on defense. Everyone looking down their noses at the Texans, Chargers, Raiders, Dolphins, Browns, etc., really needs to get their brains around the fact that those teams have more objectively good players than New England.
They aren’t about to start galloping toward the playoffs. They are wobbling like a deer on an icy pond.
COVID-19, free-agent departures. draft misses, the fact this team’s rebuilding after it “sold out,” have all helped lead it to 4-6. There’s nobody returning from injury or lurking on the practice squad that’s going to change their fortunes. There’s no stretch of “easy” games that they can get fat on.
They are – despite the myriad weeks they’ve told us they are better than their record – not better than their record.
Any edges they get are created by their coaching staff – specifically, Josh McDaniels.
McDaniels gets treated like a pinata on social media every time the Patriots have to punt, but without the game plans he’s drawn up and adjustments he’s made, this four-win team might be a two-win team.
Last week, it was a wide-receiver pass for a touchdown and a bludgeoning Patriots running game that staked New England to a lead Baltimore couldn’t overcome in a monsoon. This week, it was double-passes, reverses and screens, screens, screens helping the Patriots roll up 435 yards of offense and go 7 for 13 on third downs. And still -- because the defense couldn’t stop an undermanned Texans team -- the Patriots lose.
Nobody’s scared of the Patriots’ secondary. The Broncos weren’t. Drew Lock threw deep over and over in a Denver win. The Niners weren’t. They ran through and passed over them. The winless Jets weren’t as Joe Flacco (??!!) threw for 262 and three touchdowns. And the Texans weren’t either as Deshaun Watson went 28 for 37 for 344 and two touchdowns.
Take out the Ravens weather/style outlier and the Jets and Texans combined for 600 passing yards and five touchdown passes. The Texans didn’t have their starting left tackle and their little-used tight ends caught seven passes for 112 yards on the Patriots.
Did a lot of Watson’s brilliance have to do with him being dialed-in, especially in the first half? Yes. He hit some porthole-sized windows. But the Patriots – knowing the Texans couldn’t run the ball – had plenty of defenders to drop in coverage and still got carved up because Watson wandered past the Patriots pass rushers with disappointing ease.
I tried to tell you the Texans weren’t as bad as you thought. I tried to tell you that, even though they’d only beaten the 1-8 Jaguars this season, the combined record of their other opponents was 46-17.
I tried to tell you that if they gave up chunk plays they’d be hosed. They did (seven plays of 20 or more yards) and they were. They spruced it up in the second half defensively but that’s why Bill Belichick’s got six rings here in New England and nothing to apologize for. He’s supposed to be able to fix things.
The Patriots are going to ding and dong like this for the rest of the year. Up. Down. In. Out. Next week, they’ll probably beat the hell out of the Cardinals. Young team on a holiday week with an easily-befuddled and overeager defense? That’s like stealing for McDaniels. And then Bill Belichick will hatch something to leave banged-up and diminutive Kyler Murray unclear on what just happened.
Then the Patriots will be 5-6 and we’ll be back talking about “postseason paths.” You may not like the fact this dynasty is now spinning its wheels and trying to find traction. But you may have to get used to it.
The Patriots ran it on eight of their first 12 offensive plays on Sunday. Then they threw it on 36 of their next 52 plays. Did the Patriots “get away from the run” too soon against the worst run defense in football?
“The Texans made some adjustments in the running game and I think we had some good opportunities in the passing game, which we took advantage of,” said Belichick. “We threw the ball pretty well. So I think that's -- we were able to move the ball. That really wasn't the issue. We had, some penalties stopped us and then we had some missed opportunities when we moved it across the 50 or into the scoring zone.”
The Patriots were rolling with a run-pass mix early in the second quarter when a N’Keal Harry OPI stalled a drive at the Houston 25.
A hold by Harry on the very first play of the second half put the Patriots in a hole and when they tried to run Rex Burkhead wide on a third-and-1 toss he got spilled for a loss and injured his knee.
A 9-yard sack early in the fourth made the Patriots settle for a field goal at the end of a 16-play drive on which they’d picked up two third-and-8s with throws. Bottom line? Newton -- going 26 for 40 for 365 with no turnovers (again) -- was far from the team’s problem.
I’M LIKE A BYRD ...
Damiere Byrd, semi-silent the past few games as Jakobi Meyers flourished, had the most productive game of his career with six catches for 132 yards including a 42-yard touchdown catch in the third.
With Meyers being erased (three catches for 38 yards, two of those coming very late), Byrd’s emergence and Newton’s trust in him were keys to the Patriots staying afloat. He’s a good player and an upgrade over the guy who’d been doing that job the past few seasons, Phillip Dorsett.
N’Keal Harry had his first receptions (five of them) since getting concussed against the 49ers on October 25. His biggest gain was a 13-yarder on a second-and-14 play when he was chased out of bounds just short of the sticks. He also had a pair of penalties.
This year’s top pick, Kyle Dugger, also had a mixed bag. He had six tackles and a TFL but also got whistled for an illegal contact (the penalty was declined). He got lit up a little bit by Watson when the Texans quarterback targeted tight ends, but there’s still an awful lot to like about what Dugger brings.
The apparent loss of Burkhead to an “I don’t want to see that replay” level injury is going to put more on the plate of James White and likely Sony Michel, who was inactive for this one. Burkhead has been the Patriots best combo running back for years and was in the midst of his most productive season as a runner/receiver. He had 466 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns this year (3 rushing). He will be a 31-year-old free agent when his contract expires in March so this will be a bit of a crossroads for him with the team.