Saturday night served as a kind of postseason trial run for the New England Patriots when they faced the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium in the divisional round of the playoffs.
The Patriots could, and did, make every mistake in the book and still beat the Texans. The Patriots won 34-16 despite turning the ball over three times, including two interceptions from quarterback Tom Brady.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, pose a much bigger challenge for the Patriots, and it’s safe to say New England can’t repeat Saturday night’s performance. Brady especially has to play better. He went 18-of-38 for 272 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Let’s look at what happened on those two picks after he threw just two in 12 regular-season games.
SECOND QUARTER, 14:32
The Patriots were in “21” personnel with running back LeGarrette Blount in the backfield, fullback James Develin split out to the right, tight end Martellus Bennett playing inline, wide receiver Michael Floyd on the right and Julian Edelman in the slot.
Floyd ran a slant route and paused his route as he hit the numbers.
Brady put the ball a little too far in front of Floyd, who reached out rather than continuing his route. It wasn’t a great pass from Brady, but some improved chemistry between the quarterback and receiver, who only began to hook up prior to Week 16, could have helped avoid a turnover.
The ball clanged off Floyd’s hands …
And into Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye’s.
Rookie wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell could be recovered enough to play against the Steelers next Sunday. He was limited with a knee injury last week but practiced Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Brady has more experience throwing to Mitchell, and Floyd likely would take on a reduced role if the rookie returns. Chemistry goes a long way in the Patriots’ offense.
THIRD QUARTER, 3:52
The Patriots were in “11” personnel on Brady’s next interception with Floyd on the right, Edelman on the left, receiver Danny Amendola in the slot, Blount in the backfield and Bennett inline.
Brady was forced to throw flat-footed while right tackle Marcus Cannon was allowing Texans pass rusher Whitney Mercilus to bear down off the edge. If Brady stepped more into the throw, perhaps he could have snuck the ball in a tight window past McKinney.
He didn’t, and the ball was deflected by McKinney …
Into safety Andre Hal’s arms.
No Steelers pass rusher had more than five sacks this season, but they put up 38 sacks on the season, and linebackers James Harrison, Bud Dupree and Ryan Shazier, plus interior rusher Stephon Tuitt all can get after the passer. So, the Steelers’ pass rush will provide another test for the Patriots’ offensive line.
Here are other notes from our film review:
— Cornerback Logan Ryan had perhaps the best game of his career with an interception and two third-down pass breakups. He allowed three catches for 9 yards on seven targets and recorded a sack. He shadowed Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins for parts of Saturday’s game.
— Cornerback Malcolm Butler and safeties Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung also had strong games in coverage. McCourty and Chung intercepted passes. McCourty and Chung were targeted in tight coverage on Ryan and Harmon’s interceptions, respectively.
— Edelman continued his monster season with an eight-catch, 137-yard performance. Extrapolate his last nine games over a 16-game season, and he would have nearly 1,600 yards.
— The Patriots allowed linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy to rush the passer more frequently, and they provided quality pressure on Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler. Trey Flowers led the team in total pressures, while Ryan, Rob Ninkovich and Malcom Brown recorded sacks.
— Rookie linebacker Elandon Roberts had a strong game as a run defender. He was clogging gaps with his aggressive play all game. Defensive tackle Alan Branch continued to provide consistency up the middle, as well.
— Give guard Shaq Mason a gold star for his run blocking. Rookie Joe Thuney had an up-and-down performance.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images