HOUSTON — A trying week for the New England Patriots came to a forgettable end at NRG Stadium.
After waging war with a flu bug that infected at least one-fifth of their roster, the Patriots fell flat on “Sunday Night Football,” losing to the Houston Texans 28-22 in a game that was not as close as the final score indicated.
The illness caused nine players to miss at least one practice during the week and clearly had not fully subsided by Sunday. The Patriots took the unorthodox step of flying two team planes to Houston — one for the sick players, one for the healthy ones — and multiple players were seen wearing anti-germ face masks before and after the game.
Still, players who spoke to the media postgame downplayed the bug’s impact.
“That was more hype than anything,” safety Devin McCourty said. “Guys were in there. By the end of the week, we had guys practicing. We knew exactly what we had. We didn’t have anybody on their deathbed. Come Friday, we had a lot of guys in there able to go — no different from injuries. We had a good idea of who was playing. Other than how guys individually felt out there playing, I wouldn’t say with our preparation during the week we were thrown off a lot by that.”
“No excuses,” cornerback Stephon Gilmore added. “We still were out there playing the game. We’ve still got to execute our game plan. Things happen. You’ve got to be able to overcome it and play good football.”
Gilmore, linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, safety Patrick Chung, left tackle Isaiah Wynn, cornerback Joejuan Williams, tight end Ryan Izzo and offensive lineman Jermaine Eluemunor all were held out of practice this week, and right tackle Marcus Cannon was limited in all three sessions.
Of that group, only Izzo and Eluemunor were inactive Sunday, and the latter participated in warmups and watched the game from the sideline, likely indicating he was a healthy scratch.
It was difficult to judge which players were operating at less than perfect health, but Cannon, who played through illness in last week’s win over the Dallas Cowboys, sat out the first series of the second half before returning. He allowed two sacks in the loss.
Special teams captain Matthew Slater suggested Cannon wasn’t the only player in that position. Collins played a season-low 55 percent of New England’s defensive snaps. Van Noy, who was in coverage on Houston’s first touchdown, played 71 percent, his lowest mark since Week 2.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for all the guys tonight that went out there and weren’t 100 percent, but they put it on the line for their teammates,” Slater said. “They put it on the line because they care about this team and they care about the success of this team. I appreciate all of those guys, no question.”
The Patriots trailed 21-3 and 28-9 before staging a late rally. They scored touchdowns on each of their final three possessions after being kept out of the end zone until the final seconds of the third quarter.
“I think guys just battled hard,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “I think you deal with a lot of adversity over the course of the season, and I don’t think (the flu) had any effect on the game. I think us trying to figure out how to do a better job for 60 minutes is what’s most important, and I’m proud of the guys, the way they fought through the week. We played against a good team on the road, and when you don’t play good, you don’t win, so we didn’t deserve it.”