By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The idea of football being "a game of inches" has become so cliche over the years that hearing anybody say it is almost cringe-inducing.
But, still ... the idea persists for a reason. And we saw that on display on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
By now you know the headline: Tom Brady throws last-minute touchdown, Patriots come back to beat Texans. Fanciful jubilee filled the streets of Foxboro. Huzzah.
And while there is much that will be talked about all week long (and beyond), it's worth taking a closer look at some of the smaller, less-heralded plays in the game-winning drive alone that allowed the Patriots to pull off that dramatic comeback on a scorching Sunday afternoon at Gillette.
First play of game-winning drive: Brady throws to Danny Amendola over the middle. The pass gets deflected into the air. Safety Eddie Pleasant made a diving attempt to pick it off ...
... but it was just out of his reach.
Third-and-12, coming out of two-minute warning: Gronkowski catches a pass four yards shy of the marker, with linebacker Zach Cunningham draped on his back:
Gronkowski was wrapped up a good two yards short. But being the monster that he is, he started dragging humans, a common occurrence in the Gronkowski era:
The next play: Brandin Cooks is wide open on a comeback route up the left sideline for a gain of 18 yards. The officials could have easily called offensive pass interference (anyone who saw the call Thursday night in San Francisco understands the unpredictable nature of the enforcement of the penalty):
The next play: Everyone in the building was starting to feel it. The comeback was on. But it was nearly extinguished in one fell swoop when Marcus Gilchrist blitzed up the gut and forced a fumble as Brady was delivering a pass:
But center David Andrews had the awareness to find the ball in mid-air and get his mitt on it:
Andrews, being a big bad lineman, couldn't outright catch the ball, thus leaving it up for grabs near his feet:
As you can see above, J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney collided heads while going for the ball, thus allowing Andrews to recover the football and maintain possession:
The next play, a second-and-18 at midfield: Brady throws deep to Cooks. Safety Corey Moore intercepts the pass:
But he drops it as he hits the turf:
With less than a minute to play, and with New England having just one timeout left, a pick there would have ended the game. Alas, it did not.
The next play, coming out of timeout: Brady stands in the pocket and gets clobbered by Watt as he delivers a pass. It's complete to Amendola for 27 yards. Undeterred, he hurries to the line, takes a snap, and wins the game:
And so, you have there a 36-33 final score. But man, had any one of those plays gone another way, we're having a different discussion on Monday. The Patriots would be 1-2, their prospects as Super Bowl contenders would be questioned, and there'd be a bit of panic creeping in to the region. But thanks to Andrews paying attention, Moore not hanging on, Gronkowski being a freak, officiating being inconsistent, and of course Brady being excellent at football, the Patriots flipped that story in a matter of two minutes.
And that is why football is pretty darn good.
Now on to the leftover thoughts!
--It was, really, quite the swing overall for the Patriots. Not only did they come back to win in stunning fashion, but the Steelers lost in overtime several minutes later, the Broncos got doubled up by the Bills, the Ravens got steamrolled in London, and the Raiders fell completely flat in the night cap. The Chiefs still sit comfortably atop the AFC, but the conference really does remain there for the taking for the Patriots, despite some shaky moments through three weeks.
--Rob Gronkowski caught eight passes for a ho-hum 89 yards and a touchdown. I fully recognize the absurdity of this man, how ridiculous it is for him to be so much stronger than so many professional football players. Even still, I was surprised a bit to see this:
Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez are the most prolific tight ends in NFL history. And Gronkowski has reached this milestone in basically two fewer seasons than Gates and nearly six fewer seasons than Gonzalez.
If Gronkowski doesn't stay mostly healthy for at least five more years, we'll all have been robbed.
--I actually wrote this down in my notes after Deshaun Watson skipped in a pass on third-and-12 on the opening drive: Impression early: Will be an easy day on defense. Texans look to be who we thought they were. Yikes -- this was an improper impression!
It was wrong for two reasons. First, the Patriots' defense was not very good on this day. But secondly, and more surprisingly, Deshaun Watson was awesome. The kid was fantastic. Doing what he did on the road in his second career start against Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots? It'd be impossible to come away from that game without becoming a fan of the 22-year-old quarterback.
--To wit: When Watson escaped would-be sacks from four Patriots defenders to run free and make a 31-yard completion look easy? Arguably only Cam Newton could do that.
He also delivered as beautiful a touchdown pass as you'll ever see with his 29-yard strike to Bruce Ellington. That was a beautiful pass.
Oh! And he threw off his back foot with no momentum and a defender in his face from his own 26-yard line:
And it went for a completion, on the opposite side of the field, 30 yards upfield:
The kid had guts, intelligence, and next-level athleticism. He was fearless on a number of designed QB runs, he showed great improvisation to keep a number of plays alive, and he displayed an NFL arm in completing 66.7 percent of his passes for 301 yards.
That's not to say Watson will definitely be the next great quarterback. Certainly, we've seen Nick Foles, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin have outstanding single seasons without being able to fully replicate them. But he put a lot on display that was special. He should be an absolute blast to watch as he grows in the NFL.
--OK, but the defense. Not good. Not good at all. The Patriots allowed 417 yards to a Texans team that gained just 266 yards last week against the Bengals. The Bengals. The week prior, the Texans gained just 203 yards at home against the Jaguars.
Allowing 417 yards and 26 offensive points (Clowney scored a defensive touchdown) was really a failure for Matt Patricia's crew. And through three weeks, the numbers overall are grisly.
The New England defense ranks 32nd in yards allowed per game (461.0), 23 yards more than the 31st-ranked team and one of just three teams to allow more than 370 yards per game.
New England has allowed 31.7 points per game, which is likewise 32nd in the NFL. They're lumped in with Indianapolis, New Orleans, Cleveland and San Francisco at the bottom of the league.
Dont'a Hightower should help, yes. But he won't single-handedly fix this defense. The Patriots know that relying on Brady's offense to score 30-plus points every week is not the most sustainable method of consistently winning games.
--That being said, Brady seems to be fine with the current arrangement. What struck me Sunday is how willing Brady was to get walloped in order to complete a pass. He was hit eight times, and he fumbled three times while delivering passes. That was the millisecond difference that decided so much in this game.
It was right from the start, too. Brady hung in long enough to let Cooks spring free on the Patriots' third offensive snap of the game. He paid the price, but he completed the pass:
He probably should have had a fourth fumble, too, because there's no reasonable explanation as to how he held on to the ball while getting rocked from behind by Clowney:
There's just a lot to be said about Brady's toughness. Not that the guy doesn't get enough publicity, but there's still this misinformed idea that he's some pretty boy prima donna who can't handle getting hit.
--As promised last week, an update on Brady vs. the best season by a 40-year-old QB of all time.
Brady, 2017, through three games:
71-for-110 (64.5%), 1,092 yards, 8 TDs, 0 INTs
Brett Favre, 2009, through three games:
61-for-94 (64.9%), 566 yards, 5 TDs, 1 INT
Brady also currently leads the NFL in passing yards and passing touchdowns.
--Credit where it's due: When the defense needed to make a stop to save the game, the defense made the stop. The Texans had a third-and-1 at the Patriots' 18-yard line with 2:34 left and a two-point lead. A first down there, and the Texans could have drained the clock to about 1:00 before kicking a field goal. Or the Texans could have gone on to score a touchdown to ice the win. So, while the defense had a bad day, that third-down stop shouldn't go unmentioned.
--Had the Patriots lost this game, I'd be meticulously pointing out all of the "little things" they did wrong. But, hey, come to think of it, because of the standard they've set over the years, I'm going to do it anyway.
A third-and-4 in the first quarter: Chris Hogan runs a route a yard shy of the first down marker. He gets tackled immediately upon catching the ball. Patriots punt.
A fourth-and-8 later in the first quarter: Ryan Allen punts out of his end zone. It's not a good one. It landed on the New England 45-yard line and bounced backward two yards. The Texans were in the end zone two plays later.
A second-and-6, mid-fourth quarter: Dion Lewis catches a pass out of the backfield and sprints to the left side. He's unable to get to the sticks.
Brady threw incomplete to a well-covered Gronkowski on third-and-1. Patriots punt again.
One more: On the final play of the game, Gronkowski entered on defense to protect against the Hail Mary. He got himself in great position to defend the pass, but instead of batting it down, he went for the interception. The ball went right through his hands:
It ended up deflecting right into the hands of Duron Harmon for the game-ending intereption. But there were three Houston receivers back there too, compared to zero Houston receivers on the ground in front of Gronkowski. After the deflection, nothing but good fortune led to the interception.
These things happen over the course of the season, but right now the Patriots don't seem dedicated to doing all the "little things" with great consistency. That has been the hallmark of why Belichick's teams have been so successful for so long, and it's been lacking some this season.
--Brandin Cooks is quite fast and has crazy-good hands. This is not breaking news. STILL, how in the world did he hold on to this ball?
That's not even having "good hands." That's like having good forearms. And elbows. And body control.
And, you know, on the game-winning touchdown, his ability to control the ball while taking a whack to the head, keeping his feet inbounds, and falling to the turf was also not bad.
What I'm saying is that I think the good receiver is good. He might not be a human. Thank you for your time.
--The impossibility of covering Rob Gronowski was on display in its most beautiful form. Corey Moore exuberant and proud for his coverage on Gronkowski in the end zone ... even though he had given him a friendly bear hug:
That triumphant feeling was short-lived, though, because Gronkowski just decided on the next play he was going to catch a touchdown no matter what.
That's a frustrating assignment to draw.
--Stephon Gilmore picked up his first interception as a member of the Patriots, but he also took a pretty bad pass interference penalty early and had to miss some time due to dehydration.
Compounding his penalty was the fact that it was a dreads-on-dreads offense against DeAndre Hopkins.
Don't the guys with the long locks sign an oath to never do that to each other? We just can't allow that to happen.
--Hey, lots of attention was placed on Malcolm Butler after he didn't start last week. But he had a solid bounceback week against the Texans. He forced Watson to stumble short of the sticks on a third-down run, and he only allowed two short completions in the passing game.
If he is indeed back to form, it'll go a long way in helping the much-needed defensive turnaround.
--Everybody targeted with a Tom Brady pass had at least one reception ... except Dwayne Allen. Brady was 0-for-2 throwing to Allen, and that relationship just is not clicking. Allen's blocking shouldn't be ignored, of course. But it's not as if he's someone who's never caught passes before. He's coming off a six-touchdown season.
Allen, who's yet to catch a pass as a Patriot, hasn't been a problem. But it would be awfully helpful if Brady had another receiving option to help spread the load.
--I've been high on Deatrich Wise. I make no apologies. And he's been great thus far. He applied the pressure on Watson that forced the QB into throwing his interception. It was an interesting play, too.
Watson faked a handoff, forcing the unblocked Wise to stay home to guard against the opening of a cutback lane:
Wise was at a complete stop, not moving at all, with tight end Ryan Griffin and running back Lamar Miller standing between him and Watson. Wise turned on the jets, bursting outside of Griffin while one-arming him back into the running back, in order to create his own lane to the quarterback. A rushed Watson had to get rid of the ball:
And here's your result:
Just a great individual effort from Wise, who showed the savvy of a veteran to generate that pressure.
--Wise also would have had a sack if Watson weren't somehow able to uncork a pass from this position:
--Clearly, Romeo Crennel and Mike Vrabel spent some time watching film from last year's AFC Championship Game when it came to devising a game plan to stop Chris Hogan.
This play was an exceptional employment of the Zero Humans Defense -- a strategy we've seen play out many times over the years by visitors to Gillette Stadium:
It was an impressive decision. The fact that Houston went back to the Zero Humans defense on Hogan later in the same quarter was downright brave.
--On the whole, Nate Solder was not the disaster that so many on Twitter made him out to be. But on the strip-sack that went for a touchdown, he was as bad as you'll ever see him.
Maybe he thought White would chip Whitney Mercilus when passing him here:
But even if that were the case, Solder couldn't even get a hand on Mercilus as he ran right around the tackle to get a free shot on the quarterback. That's just a tough play for Solder.
(It was also a pretty amazing play by Clowney to recognize that the ball had popped in the air, separate himself from LaAdrian Waddle, catch the ball, and sprint to the end zone. What a monster that man is.)
--Here's an underrated Tom Brady pass for you: Third-and-10, late second quarter, ball at the New England 36. Brady stepped up in the pocket to avoid pressure from J.J. Watt ...
... found himself a nice little makeshift pocket ...
... got his feet set to deliver a high lob to the opposite sideline while getting hit by Watt ...
... and dropped it in the bucket for a gain of 17 yards:
It was just a really impressive pass. It didn't even get a replay on the broadcast. But that's none of Tom's business.
--You don't need me to tell you that the 42-yard touchdown pass to Cooks was a thing of beauty. But I will quickly point out what the defense looked like at the point of release:
Cooks appears to be covered, but safety Andre Hal was standing flat-footed. Brady released the pass at the perfect time when Cooks would spring free past Hal, and the rest was just Cooks turning on the afterburners.
It was great recognition, but also a sign that Brady and Cooks have a pretty good chemistry.
--I'm not sure what to say about the Texans not calling a timeout after Hopkins was tackled near midfield with 12 seconds left. It's just, that's not even Football 101. It's more basic than that. Had Bill O'Brien or Watson called timeout immediately, they could have run a 15-yard out to set up a try at a game-tying field goal. Instead they inexplicably let 10 seconds drain off the clock before calling timeout, thus forcing them to go with the very low-percentage Hail Mary.
O'Brien took the blame for the failure after the game, but does that make it any better? Not knowing to call timeout in that spot is ... borderline unfathomable.
--Overall, there was much more offensive firepower from both sides in that game than anyone anticipated. That's not a mark of honor for the Patriots' defense. Next week, they'll be up against Cam Newton's Panthers offense, which ranks 28th in yards and 29th in points. If the Patriots' defense allows 20-plus from that unit, then we already know what we'll be talking about next Monday.
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