For 32 minutes Sunday, the New England Patriots looked worse than they had all season.
There was ugliness in every phase. On offense, they couldn’t hold onto the ball. On defense, they couldn’t stop, of all people, third-string rookie quarterback Davis Mills. They even were missing kicks on special teams.
After a Mac Jones interception on the second snap of the second half and a 37-yard flea-flicker touchdown two plays later, New England trailed 22-9 against a Houston Texans team that almost surely will be picking near the top of the 2022 NFL Draft.
Then, a switch flipped. A trick-play Texans punt careened off one of their own players’ helmets, and the Patriots rallied. They rattled off 16 unanswered points — scoring on each of their final four possessions — to win 25-22 and avoid what would have been a potentially insurmountable 1-4 start to the season.
It was the first successful comeback of Jones’ NFL career, earning the rookie postgame plaudits from head coach Bill Belichick and captains David Andrews and Matthew Slater. But though Jones completed 12 of his final 13 passes in the win — and 76.7% overall — this wasn’t a case of a quarterback singlehandedly carrying his team to victory.
After reviewing Sunday’s game film, here are the five biggest factors that contributed to New England’s come-from-behind win:
The biggest of New England’s many first-half problems was its inability to get off the field on defense. The Texans converted six of their first nine third downs, including one via penalty. And on the three they didn’t — a third-and-5, a third-and-15 and a third-and-17 — they picked up the necessary yardage on fourth down. Those conversions allowed Houston’s Mills-led offense to go touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown to open the game.
The Patriots finally stabilized in that important area after the flea flicker, stopping the Texans on five of their final six third downs. Top cornerback J.C. Jackson rebounded from his rough first half to register two key third-down stops against No. 1 Texans wideout Brandin Cooks. One forced the aforementioned blocked punt, and the other preceded an unsuccessful 56-yard field-goal try.
CHUNK PLAYS OFF PLAY-ACTION
The Texans’ linebackers bit hard on play fakes throughout the second half, leaving Patriots pass-catchers wide open over the middle. These quick-hitting play-action throws produced three 20-plus-yard completions over the final two quarters: 21 yards to Hunter Henry, 20 yards to Nelson Agholor and 24 yards to Jakobi Meyers.
On straight dropbacks, Jones leaned heavily on Henry. He hit the veteran tight end for a 10-yard gain on second-and-3, another 10-yarder on third-and-6 and a 13-yard touchdown on third-and-6. The touchdown tied the game at 22-22 with 9:31 remaining. The other third-down conversion extended New England’s final drive. Henry found a soft spot in Houston’s zone and held on through contact to secure that the latter.
Lead back Damien Harris helped set up Henry’s touchdown with rushes of 7, 5 and 15 yards, but he was unavailable for most of the Patriots’ final drive after a ribs injury sent him to the locker room. In his absence, backups Brandon Bolden and Rhamondre Stevenson each ripped off their longest run of the day.
Bolden took a pitch from Jones and scampered 24 yards into field-goal range, following blocks by tight end Jonnu Smith, left tackle Justin Herron, center David Andrews, left guard James Ferentz and Meyers. One play later, Stevenson ran through multiple tackles to pick up another 9 yards.
Shortly thereafter, Stevenson had what would have been a go-ahead 4-yard touchdown wiped out by an illegal shift penalty, but that proved to be a boon for the Patriots. They drained an extra 1:41 off the clock before Nick Folk booted a game-winning 21-yard field goal with 15 seconds remaining.
Herron and Ferentz were two of the four backup offensive linemen (along with Ted Karras and Yodny Cajuste) who started for New England in this game. All four played every snap, as did Andrews, and acquitted themselves well as run blockers and pass protectors.
It wasn’t just the game-winner. Folk has been nails for the Patriots for more than a year now. He hit from 52 yards in the final moments of the first half and from 52 and 32 in the third quarter, salvaging drives that stalled in or near the red zone. (New England ranks 31st in the NFL in red-zone conversion rate this season.)
The 36-year-old missed an early extra point Sunday, but he’s now made 40 of his last 41 field-goal tries dating back to last September. He’s on the shortlist for 2021 Patriots MVP thus far.
Yes, the Patriots played much better after falling into a 13-point hole. But in all honesty, Houston gave this one away.
The turning-point blocked punt was a boneheaded play call and a poorly executed one at that. You’re up 22-9. Just punt the ball away. David Culley’s decision to attempt a 56-yard field goal — with a kicker who’d already missed two PATs — when his offense had been perfect on fourth down was similarly misguided. And the Patriots’ seven-minute-long winning drive would have been over in five plays had Maliek Collins not been flagged for roughing the passer on a third-and-18 incompletion.
That the Patriots capitalized on these opportunities was encouraging. Most opponents, though, won’t be this forgiving.