Monday, January 16, 2017

Patriots Grind Out Win Over Texans; Face Steelers In AFC Title Tilt

Normally, when your quarterback completes less than half of his passes, your running game is bogged down and you turn the ball over three times deep in your own territory you are going to lose the game.

Fortunately for the New England Patriots, they are the New England Patriots.

Quarterback Tom Brady threw two interceptions and passing back Dion Lewis coughed up the football twice, losing one fumble, setting up the visiting Houston Texans inside the Patriots' 35 yard line three times - but true to the bend-but-don't-break philosophy on the other side of the ball, the Patriots' defense minimized the damage by allowing only field goals on two of the three instances...

...and then creating three second half turnovers of their own while forcing the Texans' offense into punts on nine other possessions, allowing just a lone field goal in the second half as New England pulled away for a 34-16 Divisional round victory at Gillette Stadium on Saturday night.

What makes the Patriots the Patriots is their ability to minimize the effect of negative plays and level the playing field by resetting to their default fundamentals, which enables them to survive their opponent's best shot, then regain the momentum and press their will until the opposition succumbs.

They do it every single game, and against Houston on Saturday they delivered the perfect example.

How the Texans delivered their best shot was more about trying to capitalize on New England mistakes and beating Brady like he stole something - which is the best that they could hope for, given the disparity between their offense, which is very average, and their top-ranked defense - and with their defense is how they delivered their best shot.

Taking a play from the Patriots' defensive playbook, the Texans aligned their cat-quick defensive ends over center David Andrews, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus getting free runs at Brady to force him into his worst performance of the season, at the same time disguising their underneath coverages to try and take advantage of the pressure and forcing errant throws.

As a result, Houston was able to pick off Brady twice over the middle, both on tipped balls.  The pressure applied by Clowney and company was relentless - sacking Brady twice but nailing him right in the grill another dozen times - forcing Brady to heave the football into contested situations down the field which, fortunately, his receivers won more times than not.

That is not typical of Brady or the Patriots, who prefer their offense to be methodical in lulling their opponents into a coma, but as the game wore on, it became clear that Houston's top-ranked defense was prepared for that contingency, leaving offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels no choice but to take chances to move the ball.

It was a brilliant scheme by Texans' defensive coordinator Romeo Crennell that kept the Texans within striking distance of the Patriots most of the evening, but his effort was matched blow for blow by New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia's game plan, which concentrated on protecting the edges and the sidelines and forcing the Texans' offense to funnel everything inside the hash marks - essentially taking away two-thirds of the field.

The schemes were polar opposites. Crennell's charges sought to limit the Patriots' offense by taking away the middle of the field where Brady and his receivers like to operate. As a result, the Patriots had next to no initial success on the ground, and Brady found himself running for his life outside of the pocket, being brutalized by Houston's violent pass rush.

As dictated by the aforementioned circumstances, the Texans had to play a nearly flawless game and force the Patriots into mistakes to have any chance of winning - and for just over one half of play, they did just that - but thanks to the Patriots' defense and some nifty work by Lewis, Houston still trailed the Patriots despite dominating nearly all aspects of the game.

Lewis took a 12 yard swing pass to the house to open the scoring midway through the first period, then after the Texans' Nick Novak booted a 33 yard field goal - aided immensely by an a personal foul on New England cornerback Eric Rowe that gave life to a possession that had stalled - Lewis took the ensuing kickoff right up through Houston's kick coverage, going 98 yards to make the score 14-3, and the rout was on.

But that was when the Texans started harassing Brady.

A slightly overthrown Brady pass to receiver Michael Floyd was tipped right into the hands of trailing corner A.J. Bouye, who returned the interception to the New England 27 yard line, but the Patriots' defense held them to another Novak field goal, seemingly dodging a bullet - but Lewis fumbled the ensuing kickoff at the New England twelve, and two plays later Texans' quarterback Brock Osweiler found tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz wide open in the end zone, and suddenly the rout was cancelled as Houston cut New England's lead to one point.

A Stephen Gostkowski field goal increased the Patriots' lead to four going into the room at halftime, then shortly after Brady found passing back James White on a 19 yard wheel route to boost the New England lead to eleven - then subsequent scores by Lewis and Gostkoswski, a one yard run and 43 yard field goal, respectively, finally ended the Houston threat... interception by New England corner Logan Ryan setting up the Lewis touchdown run and picks by fellow Rutgers' alums Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon helping to stymie Texans' drives in the second half.

Aside from the "Rutgers Three" pulling off a rare thieving act, the defense as a whole played as well as can be expected, given the opportunities the Patriots' offense handed the Texans.

The 181 passing yards represent the fourth time this season that New England as limited the opposing offense to less than 200 yards passing, and the second time they've held the Texans under that standard in 2016 - and the 285 total yards produced by Houston counted as the seventh time New England's defense has held an opponent under 300 yards of total offense, and, again, the second time this season against the Texans.

And, just for good measure, the sixteen points surrendered by the Patriots' defense is right in line with the average points they gave up per game in the regular season which, of course, was tops in the National Football League.

The worry coming into this game is that the Patriots would be rusty enough after having a bye week to affect their execution, leading to mistakes that the Texans were well-prepared to capitalize on - and they did, to the tune of 13 points off of three turnovers, not to mention the drive-extending penalties on defense and the drive-killing errors on offense.

It could have been worse, had New England not been playing the offensively challenged Texans and been matched up with a team like - well, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, who bring their high-octane machine to Foxborough next Sunday night to play for the right to go to the Super Bowl, and to make that many mistakes against a team with an offense of that quality would likely turn out far differently...

...unless Lewis duplicated his positive plays, in which he accounted for three of the Patriots three touchdowns, becoming the first player in NFL history to score in the passing game, the running game and on a kick return in the same game.

"I did ok," the humbled Lewis said after the game, adding, "There are some things I could do a lot better on, like ball security - because I put my team in jeopardy...I've got a lot of work to do, and that's what most of my focus is going to be on."

It is exactly that kind of team-first mentality that makes the New England Patriots the New England Patriots.

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