Patriots vs. Texans: Takeaways from New England's 34-31 Win over Houston
New England came out flat, but when the offense suddenly became unstoppable in the second half, it was enough to overcome a defense that gave up 4.3 yards-per-rush on the day.
It was looked like a classic letdown game, but the Pats made the clutch plays they needed on a day they clearly didn't have their best lineup or energy.
What does that and the rest of it all mean? Here are the takeaways.
Run Defense Is a Problem
Yes, in last week's game against the Broncos, the plan was to hope that Peyton Manning handed off. But against the Texans, the Pats put their best run-stopping defense out there, and they were still gashed for 121 yards and three touchdowns.
Who knows, maybe run defense doesn't really matter in today's NFL. The Pats seem to keep on winning in spite of their inability to stop the run. But the same could be said of their pass defense the last few seasons, and that was always what ended up coming back to haunt them in the end.
Brandon Spikes is clearly nursing an injury and hasn't been as singlehandedly effective as he was before Denver. And try as they might, the rookie tackles and Isaac Sopoaga just don't have the size or technique to hold up.
There's only one answer: They're going to have to play a lot better in the playoffs, and if they don't, it will be lights out for the Patriots.
Hightower Bounces Back
With Brandon Spikes hobbled by a knee injury, Dont'a Hightower bounced back against the Texans and led the team in tackles. He also had a pass defensed and a tackle for loss.
The Pats defense made the plays it had to make at the end, but there is plenty reason for concern given how thoroughly the players were carved. Hightower was around the ball in coverage, a far cry from his outing against the Broncos.
If they're going to make a Super Bowl run, the Pats will need Hightower for his toughness and leadership, and it was a positive rebound after last week's benching.
Ridley in the Doghouse
Stevan Ridley was inactive after three straight games with a fumble. The message to Ridley is clear: Hang on to the ball, or we're happy to roll with the other guys who don't cough it up.
Sometimes it's helpful for a young player to take a game off and get a sense of perspective. This could be a positive moment for Ridley if he can refocus on his ball security.
If not, the Pats will have to ride LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, James Develin and Shane Vereen.
The Texans defense was stout against the Patriots running game. They finished with 27 carries for 88 yards for just 3.3 yards per carry. It's clear they missed Ridley's power runs.
The Pats need Ridley, as he is clearly a talent who makes them better, but he might be on his last chance this season as far as the fumbles go.
The Return of the "Gronkle"?
Rob Gronkowski came up limping after being tackled in the fourth quarter. He hobbled off the field but would return. That's a good sign, but we also saw him come back after his high ankle sprain that would later require surgery.
Gronk is already dealing with a laundry list of different ailments, and adding another ankle injury is certainly not what he needs.
Especially because Gronk was just finding his stride. This was his fourth straight game with a touchdown, and he finished with a team-leading 127 yards, including a long of 50.
There's no question Gronk is back, but can he hold up for another two months?
The Twilight Zone Defense
The Pats' defensive turnaround this season has in large part been credited to their ability to play man-to-man defense and shut down top passing attacks.
But without Alfonzo Dennard, the Pats opted to play more zone coverage against the Texans and were torched for 275 yards because of it.
With limited pass rush, Case Keenum had the extra second he needed to find open receivers. And when the Pats' pass rush was unable to wrap him up, he was able to roll out and pick up multiple first downs.
Perhaps the amount of injuries weighed on the Bill Belichick's game plan. By going with the less-physically-demanding zone coverage, he bought a week of wear and tear for his already-limping secondary.
Either way, it's clear that this team needs to play man to be their best.
Edelman on Top
After a white-hot start to the season, Julian Edelman had cooled off before the bye week. In the three games since the bye week, he's had 13 catches for 238 yards and two touchdowns.
Edelman has ascended to the top slot receiver position for the Patriots when most expected that it would be Danny Amendola.
Tom Brady's trust in Edelman is apparent, as he was targeted 12 times against the Texans. He had a Welker-ish nine catches for 101 yards. This included a clutch third-down late in the game.
With Edelman proving he could stay healthy this year, it might be time to think about extending him.
Gostkowski Continues All-Pro Season
Stephen Gostkowski hit two field goals in the fourth quarter, giving the Pats the edge in this one, and getting himself a definite game ball in the process.
On the season, he's missed just two field goals and has made every clutch kick that he's needed to. He might've had some questions surrounding him before the season, considering his down 2012 and hefty salary, but Gostkowski's value is clear.
He's a clutch kicker who puts almost every kickoff out of the stadium. When you find one of those guys, he's worth the price.
Brady Catching Fire
Tom Brady finished the day 29-of-41 for 371 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. It wasn't the smoothest start for Brady, but he turned it around to lead scoring drives on each of his five second-half possessions.
If there was a worry that Brady was losing it, the last two games prove he's still at the top of his game, and the new passing offense has found its stride with a return to health.
Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman were both targeted 12 times by Brady. Along with Shane Vereen, those three are emerging as the primary playmakers on offense, with Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson contributing a couple of times a game.
Once again, the Patriots offense looks strong at the end, and that's a great sign.
The Patriots Are 9-3
As always, the only thing that truly matters is that the Pats are 9-3 and maintain the inside track for a first-round bye, if not the top seed in the NFL.
The offense is rounding into top form and is showing signs of being consistently unstoppable for large chunks of games. If they can ever put together 60 full minutes, the Pats could win the Super Bowl.
On defense, it's clear where the trouble spots are. The players are banged up and need to get Aqib Talib, Steve Gregory and Alfonzo Dennard before the playoffs. When they play man coverage, they're a top defense.
Can they stop the run when they absolutely must? That's likely the question that will determine the Pats' fate.