The final two minutes of the first half is a danger zone for New England Patriots opponents.
Last season, the Patriots scored during that window in 14 of their 19 games, including playoffs. Six of those pre-halftime scores were touchdowns, including TDs in the divisional round and AFC Championship Game. (James White’s Super Bowl LII touchdown just missed the list, as his came with 2:04 remaining in the second quarter.)
That trend continued Sunday in the Patriots’ 27-20 Week 1 win over the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. Here’s an in-depth look at how New England, which led 14-6 at the time, drove 78 yards in 74 seconds to close out the first half with what proved to be a game-winning touchdown pass:
First-and-10 from New England 22
Running back Jeremy Hill appeared to set the Patriots up with prime field position when he partially blocked a Trevor Daniel punt, but the batted ball took a Texans bounce, causing it to roll more than 20 yards downfield before settling at the Patriots’ 22. Hill immediately set out to remedy the situation, however, gashing through the A-gap for 8 yards on first down.
The Texans began the drive with six defensive backs on the field, allowing New England, which lined up in I-formation with fullback James Develin in front of Hill and tight end Rob Gronkowski in line to the right, to clear a lane with relative ease. There also appeared to be some confusion on Houston’s side before the snap.
“I think it was a combination of us being in the wrong personnel and them obviously realizing that,” Texans safety Tyrann Mathieu told reporters after the game. “We have to do a better job of getting lined up and playing gap assignment ball.”
Second-and-2 from New England 30
Recognizing their personnel advantage, the Patriots hurried to the line and ran the exact same play again, with Hill taking an inside handoff and breaking toward the sideline for an 11-yard gain. Left guard Joe Thuney (No. 62) provided the decisive block on defensive tackle Angelo Blackson to spring Hill.
Hill managed to get out of bounds to stop the clock, too — which was important considering the Patriots had just one timeout remaining.
Tony Romo, CBS’ excitable color commentator, applauded offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ play-calling after this run.
“This is amazing,” Romo said on the game broadcast. “I’ve never actually seen anybody go I-formation (in two-minute drill) other than to run out the clock. They’re doing it because it gives them the best chance to move the ball against this front in these situations.”
Unfortunately for the Patriots, Hill suffered a torn ACL later in the game that will sideline him for the remainder of the season.
First-and-10 from New England 41
Both teams substituted after Hill’s run, with the Texans deploying their nickel defense (five DBs) and the Patriots bringing running backs Rex Burkhead and White onto the field in place of Hill and Develin. They lined up to the left and right of quarterback Tom Brady in shotgun, and Gronkowski shifted out to the slot, just inside of wide receiver Chris Hogan.
Linebacker Bernardrick McKinney and cornerback Aaron Colvin doubled Gronkowski as he tore down the seam, but neither could prevent the All-Pro tight end from hauling in a diving, highlight-reel catch that picked up 28 yards.
Replays revealed Gronkowski might not have had full possession of the ball, but the Patriots rushed to the line and ran their next play before the replay official in New York could call for a video review.
“Hindsight being 20-20 … surely I would have taken a timeout to see if they would at least buzz down to take a look at the play,” O’Brien told reporters, via ProFootballTalk.
O’Brien added that after seeing the replay, he agreed with the call on the field.
First-and-10 from Houston 31
In hurry-up mode, Brady handed off to Burkhead, who broke a tackle in the backfield but lost the ball when he was hit hard by safety Kareem Jackson. Fortunately for New England, the ball landed right at the feet of Hogan, who pounced on it near the original line of scrimmage.
At this point, the Patriots called their final timeout.
Second-and-9 from Houston 30
Coming out of the timeout, Brady began feeding Phillip Dorsett, who was in the midst of his best game in a Patriots uniform.
On second down, Dorsett ran a deep out just past the first down marker against veteran cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who’d given him a 10-yard cushion. Brady released the ball as Dorsett was coming out of his break, and the wideout made a nice lunging catch before tumbling out of bounds.
First-and-10 from Houston 18
White split out wide to the left and tried to beat Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham — who struggled in coverage against Gronkowski and Patriots running backs throughout the afternoon — with a double move, but Brady’s pass to him fell incomplete inside the 5-yard line.
It was Brady’s only incompletion on the drive.
Second-and-10 from Houston 18
Remember that play produced Dorsett’s 12-yard reception? The Patriots ran an identical one after the incompletion to White, only flipped. Dorsett lined up on the right side this time and beat corner Kevin Johnson with the same deep out, resulting in a 14-yard gain and a first down at the Texans’ 4.
First-and-goal from Houston 4
To finish things off, the Patriots positioned Gronkowski out wide to the right and motioned Dorsett into bunch trips on the left. At the snap, Colvin tracked McCarron on a slant, Joseph followed Hogan into the flat and Jackson shifted to the backside to double Gronk, leaving Johnson 1-on-1 with Dorsett.
Dorsett sprinted 5 yards past the goal line, planted his right foot and broke toward the sideline.
Johnson, who had inside leverage on the play, had no chance of sticking with him. Brady lofted an easy pass over Cunningham’s outstretched arm for Dorsett’s first touchdown as a Patriot, giving New England a commanding 21-6 lead heading into the locker room.
“The coverage that we (practiced against) all week, they were in that same coverage,” Dorsett said. “And I knew if we made the right play and if I broke out, I was going to be able to be open. I just had to make the catch.”
See the highlights from the drive in the video below.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images