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Patriots' Defense Saves The Day After Another Special Teams Miscue

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- "Not again."

Not that. Not again. Really?

That was (the clean version of) what many New Englanders were feeling when, once again, late on a Sunday night, with the Patriots holding a 14-point on the road, a simple punt return turned into a temporary disaster. Two weeks ago, Chris Harper's flubbing of a Denver punt breathed new life into the Broncos, who went on to beat the Patriots in overtime. Last week, special teams mistakes proved costly again, as the lowly Eagles blocked a punt for a touchdown and returned another punt for a touchdown, in a game which Philadelphia would go on to win by seven points.

And on Sunday night, history appeared to be repeating itself when Keshawn Martin mishandled a simple punt in the third quarter, giving possession and 45 yards to a Texans team that needed a break.

This came, mind you, after the Patriots had already enjoyed a string of fortunate events on Sunday. First and foremost, they welcomed Rob Gronkowski back to the field. They also got early Christmas presents from the Steelers and Raiders, who beat the Bengals and Broncos, respectively. Those games helped pave the way for the Patriots to emerge from Week 14 as the No. 1 team in the AFC, in the driver's seat to secure home-field advantage in the postseason.

Everything was coming up Patriots, until that football hit the turf and a swarm of red jerseys pounced.

This -- this -- was happening again?

It was. Until it wasn't.

The Patriots' defense, unfazed by the perceived momentum swing, simply got back to work. On the first Texans play following the muffed punt, Jamie Collins wrapped up DeAndre Hopkins as Jerod Mayo stepped in and stripped the ball loose. It should have been a turnover, but the officials dubiously ruled that forward progress had been stopped, and the play was therefore dead.

Again, the defense remained unaffected. Houston opted to run a Wildcat formation run for Jonathan Grimes, and Alan Branch fought through a block and pursued the ball carrier in the backfield for a loss of a yard. On third-and-4 from the 15-yard line, Brian Hoyer lofted a pass into the hands of Nate Washington in the back left corner of the end zone. The Texans appeared to have cut the Patriots' lead in half. But Malcolm Butler, feisty from the very first snap of the night, recovered in time to jar the ball loose from the receiver as the two fell to the turf, forcing a fourth down.

At that point, with 24 minutes left to play, Bill O'Brien decided to take his chances. He decided to test that New England defense yet again.

It was not a good decision.

Leonard Johnson -- a guy who signed with New England on Wednesday and had not played in an NFL game since last December -- drew coverage on Ryan Griffin, stuck with the tight end stride-for-stride, and broke up a pass on a crossing route.

The ball fell to the turf. The Patriots took over on offense. And the Texans did not score again.

It was a crucial moment, a rise-to-the-occasion and overcome-some-questionable-officiating situation that had been lacking in the previous two weeks. But in this instance, the defense put a stop to the nonsense and took care of business. The "losing streak," however brief it may have been, was over.

By the end of the night, the Patriots' defense held the Texans to just 3-for-14 on third-down conversions and 0-for-2 on fourth down. Houston gained just 189 total yards. Hopkins, averaging seven receptions and nearly 100 yards per game, finished with just three catches for 52 yards. Hoyer took five sacks, and backup T.J. Yates took another. And it was a strip-sack by Jabaal Sheard that gave the football to the Patriots inside the Houston 10-yard line to set up the final and back-breaking Patriots touchdown.

There was the special teams flub, but the defense made sure that it didn't matter. The message from the defense came through loud and clear: Houston is not winning this game.

Though the team's performance as a whole was not perfect, it did end with Tom Brady kneeling the ball three times. The quarterback was healthy, Gronkowski was healthy, and thanks in large part to the team effort on defense, the Patriots had themselves a 21-point win. One dropped punt was not enough to derail this Sunday, a day that from start to finish could not have gone much better for the AFC-leading Patriots.

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here. You can email him or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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