By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The Patriots may have beaten the Texans by 21 points, but don't let that distract from the fact that nothing came easy for New England on Sunday night in Houston.
The two teams were engaged in a one-score game for most of the first half, before the Patriots were able to stretch their lead to 11 points before halftime. They tacked on a field goal to start the second half -- completing the famed "double score" -- before both defenses started taking over the game.
And so it was fitting that the game really turned with an outstanding defensive effort from Jabaal Sheard, who leads this week's edition of Four Ups and Four Downs.
Perhaps the most underrated signing of the Patriots' offseason, Sheard has been nothing short of excellent this year. That showed up in a big way on national TV on Sunday night.
Sheard finished the night with two sacks and two forced fumbles, both of which impacted the game immensely in the second half.
The first came roughly 10 minutes into the third quarter, with Houston driving into field-goal range while trailing by 14 points. Sheard burned off the defensive left end and made a beeline for Brian Hoyer, stripping the ball 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. As an added bonus, the football bounced backward and rolled about 15 yards before Houston recovered. Instead of trying a field goal to cut the lead to 11, the Texans were forced to punt.
The second forced fumble came as the result of just tremendous individual effort by Sheard to fight through the line and get to the quarterback. Sheard ragdolled Hoyer to the turf, jarring the ball free in the process, and the Patriots recovered at the Houston 7-yard line. Three plays later, James White was in the end zone, and the Patriots held that 21-point lead.
Credit Sheard for allowing the Patriots to put the game out of reach.
The Patriots signed this guy earlier in the week, and as you might expect, it came with little fanfare. Yet Johnson, looking like Shane Vereen in the white No. 34 jersey, came up with two huge pass break-ups to cut short two different Houston drives.
With the Patriots holding a 7-0 lead early on, the Texans were looking to tie things up. On a third-and-5 from the New England 20-yard line, Brian Hoyer tried to connect with Cecil Shorts, but Johnson jumped in front of the receiver to break up the pass and force Houston to settle for a field goal.
In the third quarter, after a costly muffed punt by Keshawn Martin gave Houston new life and great field position, the Texans decided to go for it on a fourth-and-4 at the New England 15-yard line. It looked like they might convert it, too, but Johnson stuck with Ryan Griffin and reached to break up a pass that would have kept the drive alive.
The two plays may not make many highlight reels from this game, but they were both huge.
What a difference two weeks can make.
The last time we saw Gronkowski was in Denver, sitting up on the back of cart after what looked like another catastrophic knee injury. That obviously turned out to not be as severe as initially feared, and news that Gronkowski would suit up for this game surprised most everybody in the country. Would he be 100 percent, or would he just be a big decoy?
He was neither, but he was a lot closer to the former than the latter. He came up with a 45-yard reception early in the first quarter, setting up the first Patriots score. And when he motioned out wide left on a play from the 1-yard line and found himself in 1-on-1 coverage with 5-foot-11 Quintin Demps, he looked like his old self in going up and grabbing a touchdown out of mid-air.
And then in the fourth quarter, Gronkowski ran up the seam and made a second-and-24 conversion look like a piece of cake.
He finished the game with four receptions, 86 yards and a touchdown, all while looking fine in the run blocking game, and all despite limited usage.
Suffice it to say, Gronkowski looks OK.
At this point, the kicker is being taken for granted in New England. That tends to happen when the man is automatic.
Again, this game was not the blowout that the final score might indicate, and if Gostkowski hadn't been on point, it could have been a very different ballgame.
A 43-yard field goal in a 7-3 game in the second quarter: Money.
A 49-yarder on the opening drive of the second half: Drilled.
It may not seem like much, and in today's NFL that kind of performance is not necessarily noteworthy. But had either of those long kicks gone wide, the Texans would have taken over with great field position in a position to flip the game.
That didn't happen, and Gostkowski improved to 26-of-27 on field goals for the season. His only miss on the year came on a 54-yard attempt.
HONORABLE MENTION: Keshawn Martin
The former Texan was having a night. He averaged more than 11 yards per return on four punts, he averaged 22 yards on three kick returns, and he played a role in the offense, catching three passes for 23 yards and the team's first touchdown of the night. He was having a night.
But then, four-plus minutes into the second half, he booted a punt and gave the Texans 45 free yards and possession. Though the defense bailed him out for the miscue, it was that exact mistake that cost the Patriots the Denver game and cost Chris Harper his job. The Patriots didn't lose this one, and Martin won't lose his job, so his positive contributions still warrants a mention after this one.
Tom Brady was able to complete 22 of his 30 passes for 226 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, but he also took three sacks. Though the O-line and coaching staff did a remarkable job in neutralizing the dynamic J.J. Watt, but at the same time, they made Jadeveon Clowney look like the monster he was at South Carolina instead of the career disappointment he's been in the pros.
Add in a pair of holding penalties on Tre' Jackson, a false start on Marcus Cannon, and a Whitney Mercilus spin move that left Bryan Stork in the dust and Tom Brady on his back, and it was not a banner night for the O-line.
Their work in completely taking Watt out of the game shouldn't be ignored, and overall their work was enough to win on this night. But if the opponent had a little bit more potency offensively, we might be looking at those errors a bit more critically.
He may not steal the show with spectacular plays too often, but Devin McCourty's importance to the Patriots defense cannot be overstated. So it was rather significant when the safety hobbled off the field in the second half and went straight to the locker room.
McCourty injured his ankle on a non-contact play, which might be good news or could be bad news. The Patriots might need to go 3-0 from here on out if they want to keep that No. 1 seed, and that's a mighty tall task if they play even one game without McCourty.
The running back was having a highly effective day, rushing for 53 yards on 10 carries, but he went down with a hip injury in the second quarter and did not return. With two outdoor games in the Northeast remaining on the Patriots' regular-season schedule, Blount figured to be a major part of the game plans to end the season. If the injury keeps him out beyond next week's Titans game, it could be a bit troubling, though Brandon Bolden did a fine job stepping in on Sunday.
Completing the injury trifecta is defensive lineman Dominique Easley, who fell flat on the turf in the third quarter with a left leg injury. Given his history, there was immediate concern, but Easley was able to ride the stationary bike on the sideline. The defensive line has been an incredibly effective unit this season, and it relies on contributions across the board, so any loss of manpower would take a toll.
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