The New England Patriots had the blueprint.
They knew exactly what they needed to do to stop the Houston Texans’ one-dimensional offense. It was a simple solution, really, one that could be summed up in three simple words:
Contain Deshaun Watson.
Contain. Deshaun. Watson.
New England’s defense did the exact opposite. Watson accounted for 380 of Houston’s 399 yards (344 passing, 36 rushing) and hardly was touched Sunday as he led the Texans to a 27-20 victory that pulverized the Patriots’ playoff hopes.
The victory was only Houston’s third in 10 tries this season, with the other two coming against the one-win Jacksonville Jaguars.
“We knew that we were going to have to come in here and just contain Watson and really contain the passing game,” Patriots safety/linebacker Adrian Phillips said after the game. “We knew everything that we had to do. We just didn’t get it done, and that’s the most frustrating part. Even though they’re a good team, that was a winnable game, and we didn’t do enough to win it.”
Phillips, whose willingness to share honest insight after wins and losses alike has made him a valuable resource for reporters, mentioned containing Watson six times during his postgame video conference. It’s clear the Patriots’ defensive game plan centered on limiting the multi-talented young quarterback who’d given them fits in previous meetings, including last December’s loss in Houston.
The issues started early Sunday.
On the second snap of the game, edge rusher Chase Winovich wound up behind Watson, giving the QB an open lane to scramble to his right. Throwing on the run, Watson hit tight end Darren Fells for 13 yards and a first down.
On another play late in the first half, Winovich and rookie Josh Uche both had beads on Watson, but he escaped the pocket and scrambled for 11 yards on second-and-10. Watson capped the drive with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Keke Coutee that gave Houston a 21-10 halftime lead.
A different first-half possession featured Watson scrambles of 8, 7 and 4 yards, the last of which resulted in his first touchdown since Week 1.
“Any time you play a player like Watson, you’ve got to contain him,” Phillips said. “You can’t let him out of the pocket. He’s going to get out of the pocket eventually, but he’s just one of those players that the play breaking down or the play extending is a good thing for him. For some quarterbacks, if the play extends, they make questionable decisions. But for guys like him, it’s a good thing.
“For him, extending the play — and then you’ve got all those receivers that are running fast and able to get open, and they’re stretching the field, and he’s able to run all day. It was just a bad job by us of containing him. It’s just frustrating, because we know what we had to do, and we didn’t do it.”
Despite facing a Texans offensive line that was missing starters at left tackle (Pro Bowler Laremy Tunsil) and left guard (Senio Kelemete), the Patriots’ pass rush produced zero sacks and just two quarterback hits, one of which came late in the fourth quarter. It was just the fourth time in Watson’s NFL career he’d played in a game without being sacked.
The only time Houston’s offense scuffled was when it took the ball out of its QB’s hands. The Patriots held running backs Duke Johnson and C.J. Prosise to 19 yards on 13 carries.
“We just let Watson control the game, and we can’t do that,” Phillips said. “I mean, in the second half, we did a better job of containing him, but we just couldn’t get off the field. And when we did get off the field, we let them into the red zone and then ended (drives) with a few field goals.
“The main thing was we knew we just had to contain (Watson). He’s a great player. He’s one of those magical players who, if you let him out of the pocket, it’s going to be a long day. And that’s what it was. You can’t give up 27 points like that. You’ve got to give your offense a chance, and we didn’t do that.”
Allowing Watson to scramble wasn’t the Patriots’ only problem, though. They also struggled in coverage and exhibited uncharacteristically poor tackling at times.
Watson completed passes of 13, 14, 14, 16, 18, 20, 21, 22, 24, 25 and 44 yards from a clean pocket with minimal pressure.
“Going against a quarterback (who’s) mobile like that, it’s going to take 11 guys,” Phillips said. “You’re going to have to count on your rush, and the cover guys are going to have to cover for maybe two, three seconds longer than they’re used to. And when Watson throws the ball out to the flat or whatever it may be, you need all 11 guys to get there.
“There was a lot of yards after contact, and we’ve just got to do a better job of knocking them back and just being better defensively and getting off the field. If we get off the field, then we can beat any team out here. We just have to get off the field defensively.”
At 4-6, the Patriots likely will need to beat every remaining team on their schedule to have any chance of sneaking into the postseason. They now sit in 11th place in the AFC standings, two games back of the final wild-card spot.
“I mean, it’s been must-win for us for the past three to four weeks,” Phillips said. “We’ve got six losses right now. It is what it is. You can’t lose another one. We felt like that when we had five losses, but it’s even more now. … We know our back is against the wall.”