Three times the Patriots have hosted the Houston Texans in Foxboro. Three times the Patriots have won big. Final scores of 40-7 (2006), 42-14 (2012), and 41-28 (2012 playoffs) are impressive, but the latest triumph wasn’t as easy as that last margin suggests thanks to some special teams woes.
The Pats certainly controlled the game from the middle of the first quarter on, and several times they threatened to slam the door on the Texans. But to Houston’s credit, the visitors were never fully out of it. Most of that credit goes to Danieal Manning and the Texans’ return game.
On the first play of the game, Manning broke off a 94-yard return that set up his offense at the New England twelve yardline. Although a strong defensive stand limited Houston to three points, the special teams breakdown was no less problematic.
Late in the second quarter, Manning had a return of 35 yards that became 50 when kicker Stephen Gostowski resorted to the horse-collar tackle. In Gostowski’s defense, his only other choice might have been letting Manning get deep into plus territory. Either way, Houston had the short field and took advantage to score a touchdown.
Early in the fourth quarter it was a 69-yard Manning return that helped Houston pull within three scores, and while the Texans’ rally fell well short in the end, it’s painfully clear that the Patriots have some very serious special teams issues. As a team, the Texans were able to average 46 yards per kickoff return on New England’s five kicks. The resulting field position led to 17 of Houston’s 28 points.
The good news is that, with the exception of those three drives, the Pats played some outstanding football.
The box score belies how well the defense performed; many of Houston’s 425 total yards came in garbage time-type situations. The Patriots held substantial leads throughout the second half and adopted a bend-but-don’t-break approach as they forced the Texas to eat up the clock trying to play their way back into contention. Of particular note was the linebacker play. Dont’a Hightower, Rob Ninkovich, Brandon Spikes, and Jerrod Mayo played very effectively sideline to sideline.
Houston tailback Arian Foster carried the ball 22 times and saw 15 of those go for three yards or fewer thanks to the New England front seven. The pass rush wasn’t particularly great, but the rush defense kept Foster from making a major impact. More than half of his 90 rushing yards came on five consecutive carries during a touchdown drive, and aside from that momentary lapse, the Pats kept him under wraps.
The secondary was also sound, led by cornerback Aqib Talib and safety Steve Gregory, who posted 10 tackles each. So while quarterback Matt Schaub enjoyed good protection for most of the day, he didn’t have an easy time finding open receivers down the field.
Ninkovich intercepted Schaub in the third quarter on a third down play that simultaneously killed a Houston drive in plus territory and helped lead to a decisive Patriots’ touchdown. Operating at the edge of field goal range, Houston saw their opportunity for points vanish as Ninkovich snatched the ball out of the passing lane. New England would and should have had a second turnover as well, but a fumble was waved off by referee Tony Corrente. Despite two of his officials signaling Patriots’ ball after a brief scrum on the turf, Corrente made the post-call determination that the runner’s forward progress had been stopped despite the lack of a whistle.
In fact, the game was rife with questionable calls. Houston’s first touchdown was a Foster run that appeared to end short of the goalline. Corrente elected to let the call of touchdown stand following the review. In the second half, Foster was awarded a first down on a fourth down run that seemed to fall just shy of the line to gain. Late in the game, new England benefited froma defensive holding call that, while accurate, occurred away from the play and was made late by the side judge. These and a host of other calls and non-calls added an element of frustration to an already-intense rematch, though at the final whistle none truly impacted the outcome.
When it was all over, the New England offense was simply too strong.
Though the team lost tight end Rob Gronkowski to a broken forearm (again) early in the first quarter, Tom Brady and company didn’t miss a beat. With 457 total yards, the Pats did more or less whatever they wanted offensively. Brady finished 25 of 40 for 344 yards and three touchdowns. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen tag-teamed for 123 yards on 22 carries, or 5.6 yards per rush.
Vereen accounted for three Patriot touchdowns (two through the air) and became an unlikely hero in Gronk’s absence. Wes Welker led all receivers with 131 yards on eight grabs, and was clearly Brady’s primary target throughout the contest.
As predicted, Houston’s most dangerous weapons were Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels, who finished with a combined 17 catches for 176 yards. But New England kept both out of the endzone, forcing Schaub to look elsewhere for open options in the red zone. That, coupled with the management of Foster and the ground game, prevented Houston from getting any consistent traction.
Even New England’s punts were fantastic, as zoltan Mesko averaged better than 52 yards per boot and twice pinned Houston inside the 20. If not for the kick return game, this 41-28 win might have been a thorough blowout.
In the final analysis, this game went about as well as anyone in new England could have hoped. The few mistakes didn’t hurt too badly, and the Pats did more than enough to corral a very talented opponent. With Baltimore upsetting Denver, New England will host the AFC Championship Game.
This is good and bad. Good because home field in January is huge. But the Pats have a checkered recent history against the Ravens, and Baltimore will come in with the added motivation provided by Ray Lewis’ impending retirement. It’s no secret that the two clubs dislike one another, and in their regular season meeting this year, perceived officiating snafus by the replacement refs left New England with a one-point loss.
New England and Baltimore have met at least once in every season dating back to 2009. Those five contests have been decided by a grand total of 32 points, and that includes a lopsided 33-14 Baltimore win in the 2010 postseason. The last three matchups have each been within a field goal, so expect a tight one this weekend.