HOUSTON — The last time the Patriots were in NRG Stadium, most of the country was pulling on its best shoes to dance on the graves of Tom Brady and the Patriots dynasty after the first 30 minutes.
A couple hours later, the Patriots had pulled off perhaps the greatest comeback in pro sports history. They followed up that win in Super Bowl 51 with two more Super Bowl appearances and another Super Bowl win and the dancing shoes were once more tucked in the closet.
Sunday night, America had a chance to dig those shoes out once again. And this time, there was no miraculous comeback you’ll tell grandchildren about. Just a slow fade to a 28-22 defeat that wasn’t really that close.
The Patriots are 10-2 and — with four games left — there’s no doubt they’re headed for the postseason. But the loss drops them behind Baltimore (also 10-2) thanks to the Patriots loss to the Ravens a month ago.
Even with the team so ravaged by the flu they had to scramble another plane to transport their sickest players to Houston, the Patriots’ mastery over the Texans made this game seem like the one they’d kick it in offensively.
They ran the ball better than they had all season the week before. Phillip Dorsett and Mohamed Sanu were back on the field. Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry had flowers thrown at their feet for playing adequately against Dallas.
The Texans linebackers even played right into New England’s hands by dressing up in SWAT team outfits before the game to show they were ready for combat or whatever.
And, during the opening drive when Tom Brady twice found Julian Edelman open on third downs, it looked like it was all going to fall into place.
Then the Texans decided to double Edelman everywhere and Brady was left ducking for cover, throwing into tight coverage or flinging the ball to empty spots he thought his guys would be.
On this night, the Patriots defense didn’t ride over the ridge to save the day. Brady got picked on the Patriots' second drive when Harry got discarded by cornerback Bradley Roby on a simple slant route. The 6-3, 225-pound first-rounder, who is quickly finding out this isn’t the Pac-12 anymore, was non-competitive on the route and Roby undercut it with ease.
Three plays later, the Texans were in the end zone after the first of three Deshaun Watson touchdown passes. A 13-play, 88-yard drive capped by another easy flip by Watson for a touchdown put the Patriots offense where it can least afford to be. Down 14-3 and in catch-up mode.
Maybe the sickness played a role Sunday night, maybe it didn’t. But it wasn’t health that stopped the Patriots offense. It was personnel. With Edelman getting doubled, Sanu at less than 100 percent and Harry banished to the sidelines after the interception, Brady was reliant on Dorsett and Meyers with a splash of tight ends Matt LaCosse and Benjamin Watson and a sprinkling of James White.
It wasn’t nearly enough. The Patriots aren’t fast on offense, which makes them easy to defend 1-on-1 and leaves Brady throwing into tiny windows or forcing the ball to Edelman, the one wideout he trusts is going to be where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there. They don’t make a ton of contested catches where their physicality wins out.
When guys get truly open — like Edelman on a 44-yard gain on a first-and-30 play — it’s because of a defensive breakdown.
There are drops — Sanu had one on fourth and inches, LaCosse had one in the red zone. There are crossed signals. And the frustration Brady’s feeling because of all of it leads you to conclude that this 2019 offense might get a little bit better, but that it will never really get good.
It’s been like this since the second half of the third game of the season. A week after the Patriots annihilated the Dolphins and we — I swear to God we did this — debated whether this offense was better than the 2007 offense, New England went 2-for-8 on third down in the second half of a win over the Jets.
And, aside from a half of effectiveness here and there, they’ve been in the same morass ever since. Inconsistent on third down. Spotty running game. Completely unable to find anything they can hang their hats on in the red zone.
Josh McDaniels didn’t get dumb over the summer. Brady didn’t get old after Week 2. The offense was built on a shaky foundation. Guys they wanted in free agency didn’t come. The guys they got in free agency didn’t work out. The troubled guys they signed (Antonio Brown) or had dropped in their laps at the end of camp (Josh Gordon) who could have spackled over the cracks didn’t stick.
The “Josh and Tom will figure it out” approach that worked last year hasn’t worked this year in large part because there isn’t a Hall of Fame tight end wandering around out there to scare anyone.
And after each game there’s a Brady shrug-a-thon because even a relentless optimist like him can’t bring himself to say, “We’ll figure it out.”
“Like I said, we’re battling, we’re trying as hard as we can,” Brady said when asked if there was enough talent to get where the team wants to go. “It all remains to be seen. You can make a bunch of predictions and so forth but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about going out there and doing it.”
The Patriots had their worst game of the season defensively. They weren’t horrific, just average against a talented offense. They got outschemed on two touchdowns, flat-out beaten on another when the game was still in the balance. But unlike other years — unlike the last time the Patriots played in this stadium — there was no expectation that the offense would shake off the cobwebs and mount anything substantial.
It’s weird to see a Patriots team with a still very capable Brady be wholly unreliable. But that’s where the Patriots are right now.
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