Putting 42 points on the board will always get the sexy headlines, but the New England Patriots defense was the real story of this game, limiting the mighty Houston Texans to a single scoring drive, except for a meaningless touchdown against the scrubs in the fourth quarter.
The turning point of the game came, believe it or not, with only two plays run and 42 seconds off the clock. The Patriots defense was on the field, but it wasn’t a sack, an interception or anything spectacular.
It was a timeout called from the bench.
Bill Belichick had just watched the Patriots' run defense get torched two plays in a row, Arian Foster running at will for gains of more than 10 yards (even though the first play was called back). Although the TV guys said it was to avoid a too-many-men-on-the-field penalty, I don’t buy it.
Bill B, the Yoda of NFL defensive minds, had seen enough and needed to make an adjustment, one that couldn’t be made on the fly. In that brief spot of time, the coaches and players conferred and revised, and, voila, the next two Houston plays, both on the ground, went for a total net of four yards.
The modest evening line for Arian Foster, the Texans’ stud back: 15 rushing attempts, 46 yards.
People like to play matchup games, asking which person you would rather have at tailback or linebacker, but the ultimate matchup is Coach Bill vs. anyone. Most coaches hold on to their timeouts as long as they can. They reserve them for the offense, to stop the clock on a last-minute drive or to avoid a delay-of-game penalty. Not Bill.
Bill plays the game from a supersonic jet at 30,000 feet while most other coaches are riding rickshaws on the ground. One critical timeout, one set of adjustments communicated to all, and the Houston offense was soon on the bench, watching Tom Terrific thread passes to receivers all over the field.
But we all know that the players have to execute the plays on the field. Devin McCourty came out of nowhere and made the key INT in the end zone, putting an end to a key Texans drive when the game was still in doubt.
Jerod Mayo filled gaps and blitzed Matt Schaub, making him look all evening like a clone of Mark Sanchez. Vince Wilfork and Chandler Jones batted down two passes in the first half, making us ask: JJ who?
But let’s give kudos to the offense, too. Josh McDaniels saw that play-action would be effective in the passing game against this aggressive defense, so he went to this as much as the empty backfield.
When Brady faked the handoff and tossed it to Brandon Lloyd—the newly awakened Brandon Lloyd—he was the only one in his zip code.
And let’s not forget McDaniels' classic call of “halfback screen, fumble at the 10, wideout recovery in the end zone.” They executed this play just the way it was called and practiced all week.
That was almost as good as Josh’s second-quarter TD call: “Tight end split wide left, nobody covers him, Brady notices, and accepts the gift of a touchdown.”
Last but not least, let’s give credit to Dante Scarnecchia and the entire offensive line. When you’ve got to game-plan for a stud like JJ Watt, it’s like planning for LeBron James. You’re not going to shut him down completely. You just want to limit his impact on the game.
Quick passes: No need to double him. Deep passes: Find him with two guys. Watt might have made Brady hurry, but he didn’t record a single sack or batted pass all game.
An easily overlooked O-line point: There were hardly any holding calls. People forget that a 10-yard penalty is just like a 10-yard sack. In fact, if a holding call negates a big play, it’s even more demoralizing than a sack.
Dante and friends, your play last night was like a divine comedy.
So any Pats game that ends up with a healthy, smiling Tom Brady on the sideline for the last five minutes is a good one. Ryan Mallett, you are becoming a living, breathing Red Auerbach victory cigar.
I’m not quite ready to break out the champagne, but this was a statement win for a team that is still missing some key parts. This is a Bill Belichick-coached team, and it's peaking at the right time.