By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
NOTE: This is the fifth installment in a series dedicated to the "forgotten" playoff games from the Patriots' 20-year run as kings of the NFL.
The Houston Texans are an NFL football team. A real, live, NFL football team. They have a training facility, a logo, and they even have their own stadium. It's true. (I had to look it up, but it's nevertheless true.)
Alas, what the Houston Texans do not have is an abundance of success. Since entering the league as an expansion team in 2002, they've made the playoffs in just six of their 18 seasons, reaching the divisional round four times but never making it deeper than that. The combined score of those four divisional round games? Opponents 146, Texans 88.
Long story short, the Texans have never sniffed a Super Bowl. And with Bill O'Brien pulling some absurd moves down there this winter and spring, they don't appear to be getting any closer.
But if there was one year when it looked like they might actually have a shot, it was 2012. That year, they were a powerhouse. But then they entered Gillette Stadium wearing corny varsity jackets, and they went from 11-1 to 12-4 in a hurry. They re-entered Gillette a month later, this time without the cheesy jackets, but nevertheless got their doors blown off by the Patriots.
Four years later, the Texans had another chance at reaching a Super Bowl. No, they weren't great. Maybe they weren't even good. But they managed to catch the Patriots on an off night in the divisional round of the 2016 playoffs, and the opportunity to reach the first conference championship game in franchise history was theirs for the taking.
Alas ... they are the Texans.
This is the story about those Texans.
Were the 2016 Texans good? I'm glad you asked! No, they were not. Yet a 9-7 record that year was good enough to win the AFC South in a tiebreak over the Titans. Then the Texans were fortunate enough to luck into The Connor Cook Game in the wild-card round, after Derek Carr broke his leg in Week 16, thus thrusting Connor Cook into the starting QB role and thus ending the Raiders' brief life as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
The Texans hosted the Raiders and beat the Radiers. The score was 27-14. It was boring. Connor Cook was 18-for-45 with three picks. Nobody enjoyed this game.
The Texans' prize for winning that game was a trip to Gillette, where they had never won and where they had been shut out earlier that year in a game when they were never even competitive, despite rookie Jacoby Brissett having to make his first NFL start on national TV. Now with Tom Brady playing the most inspired football of his entire life, the Texans had no shot. No chance. They were about to run into the buzz saw that was the 14-2 Patriots. It was once again going to be a waste-of-time blowout.
But then ... then the game kicked off. And things got weird.
This right here is a spoiler alert: If the Houston Texans had annnnybody else at quarterback other than Brock Osweiler, they probably would have won this game. But they did have Brock Osweiler, and so they lost this game. By 18 points.
Brock Osweiler stinks.
The Patriots got out to a 7-0 lead early, thanks to Chris Hogan drawing an A.J. Bouye pass interference penalty. Brady hit Hogan for 22 yards on the next play, and then connected with Dion Lewis for a 13-yard touchdown on the next. That touchdown was all Dion Lewis, as his split-second hesitation in the open field was all he needed to turn Benardrick McKinney into a helpless tackling dummy.
It was the start of a rather large evening for little Dion.
What came next, though, was the first major goof of the evening for the home team. After coming up with a defensive stop on a third-and-18, the Patriots had forced the third straight three-and-out for Houston's stumbling offense. However, a scuffle broke out after the play, and Eric Rowe picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for pulling a player off a pile. (Bill Belichick was mifffffed.)
The Texans then embarked on a legitimate scoring drive, though they had to settle for a field goal from the Patriots' 15-yard line.
With the score at 7-3, the Texans had to have been feeling pretty good. But then they kicked off to Dion Lewis.
Dion Lewis, everybody. Look at that extra gear. The little fella had some big-time giddy-up.
Now trailing 14-3, the Texans ... the Texans went three-and-out. Brock Osweiler completed a zero-yard pass on third-and-1.
The Patriots were in position to really put the game out of reach right there at the start of the second quarter. But that's when Goof No. 2 happened.
Brady hadn't exactly established much chemistry with receiver Michael Floyd, whom the Patriots claimed off waivers in mid-December. That lack of chemistry showed when Floyd ran a slant but didn't run through his route, instead stopping his feet after the ball was thrown. As a result, the pass was out of his reach, and Brady's pass deflected off Floyd's hands and into the arms of Bouye.
That was a goof. Floyd later picked up an offensive pass interference penalty, too. He was inactive for the conference championship and Super Bowl.
The pick in Patriots territory didn't hurt New England too badly though, because Brock Osweiler was the Texans' quarterback; Houston settled for another short field goal.
Ah, but that was when Big Goof No. 3 happened. On the kickoff following that field goal, Dion Lewis must have been envisioning touchdown No. 3. Instead he got Goof No. 3.
Brandon King had no idea that the football was rolling around his ankles, and the Texans recovered at the Patriots' 12-yard line. Unlike the previous goofs, this one hurt, as Osweiler threw a touchdown pass (!!!) to C.J. Fiedorowicz. The Texans trailed by just one single point.
The next few series went like this:
--Brady sacked on third down, three-and-out, Patriots PUNT
--Osweiler throws incomplete on third down, three-and-out, Texans PUNT
--Brady completes 45-yarder to Chris Hogan ... but gets sacked on the next third down, Patriots PUNT
--Osweiler throws incomplete on third down, three-and-out, Texans PUNT
Aside from the single 45-yard completion, those drives gained a combined total of 14 yards on the other 14 plays.
It wasn't exciting!
The Patriots mounted a scoring drive before halftime, getting a first-and-goal from the 3-yard line. Brady had about 45 minutes in the pocket on first down before taking off and running, getting stopped at the 1-yard line. He completed a pass to James Develin in the left flat on second down, but Eddie Pleasant and Akeem Dent stopped him at the 1-millimeter line.
LeGarrette Blount was stopped by a wall of white jerseys on third down, and the Patriots settled for a 19-yard field goal.
The Patriots led 17-13 at halftime. They probably felt lousy about it. The Texans probably felt lousy that Brock Osweiler was their quarterback.
The second half began with Brady ... throwing a slant ... to Michael Floyd.
It was nearly picked off. Again. By A.J. Bouye.
And so ended the ever-so-brief Michael Floyd era in New England.
The Patriots went three-and-out. Then the Texans got a big 17-yard run out of Lamar Miller to cross midfield ... but then punted.
This game stunk. But things got a little fun.
Brady and Edelman connected for 26 yards in a way they probably never connected before or after this particular pass. Brady knew he was going to get smoked, so he lobbed a ball into a spot and let Edelman go and get it:
That play kicked off a vintage Brady playoff drive, one where the quarterback seemingly channeled his emotions on a frustrating night into some cold-hearted execution. Brady went 6-for-7 for 94 yards, capping off the drive with a picture-perfect drop in the bucket to James White for six:
Now trailing 24-13, the Texans needed a spark. Instead they got an Osweiler pick.
On the next drive, Brady was very fortunate that Jadeveon Clowney didn't break his leg on a hit that was completed much too late but was nevertheless deemed legal by referee Pete Morelli, who then pushed Brady back down to the turf.
The Patriots ended up punting, but at least Brady's tibia and fibula remained intact. (Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota had broken their legs on similar tackles just a few weeks earlier.)
The rest of the quarter? There were some punts. There was a Brady pick. There were many bored spectators.
The fourth quarter began with Nick Novak celebrating jubilantly after kicking a field goal to cut the lead to eight.
Calm down, Nicholas.
Clowney delivered another late cheap shot that could have ended Brady's season.
This one resulted in a flag, but the Patriots still ended up punting.
The game was not great.
Despite it being a pretty sloppy game, full of bad plays, bad decisions, bad officiating, and bad everything ... it was kind of close. The Patriots led by just eight points in the fourth quarter. Theoretically, the Texans were a pick-six or a fumble recovery away from needing a two-point conversion to tie things up. (We know that Osweiler wasn't going to lead the Texans on a touchdown drive.)
Alas, Brock Osweiler was their quarterback, and on the first play after the Texans took over at their own 11-yard line, Mr. Osweiler threw a pick. DeAndre Hopkins was open over the middle, but Osweiler (in a clean pocket) airmailed the receiver. Logan Ryan picked it off and returned it to Houston's 6-yard line.
From there, Dion Lewis made two impressive runs -- the first one a five-yard gain, the second a tough run up the gut -- to get the Patriots into the end zone, giving him his third touchdown of the game -- one through the air, one on a kick return, and one on the ground. Not bad.
The final TD gave the team a 31-16 lead with 12:16 left to play.
And then ... the Texans went three-and-out.
At that point, the Texans were cooked, and the only people keenly interested in the rest of the game were those who had wagered a dollar or two. With the Patriots favored by 16 points entering the night, there was work to be done in order for New England to cover the spread.
What happened next can only be described as a gambler's dream -- or nightmare, depending on which end of the spectrum one was sitting.
The rare rushing quartet of Blount, Lewis, Edelman and Danny Amendola combined for 43 yards on the ground on the ensuing drive. But Lewis fumbled on a third-and-10 from the Houston 24-yard line. Many dollars were likely on the line as the football sat precariously on the Gillette Stadium turf.
Joe Thuney, though, saved the day, flopping on top of the loose ball.
Stephen Gostkowski trotted on to kick a 43-yard field goal, and after all of that, the Patriots were up by 18 points.
Betting on sports? Not always a great idea.
In any event, the game was sealed, but Osweiler wanted to send the fans home happy with one more awful interception.
What a generous fellow.
Osweiler finished 23-for-40 for 197 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions while also taking three sacks. Brady was a grisly 18-for-38 with two picks, but he did throw for 287 yards and two touchdowns. Edelman had a very quiet eight-catch, 137-yard performance, if such a thing exists. And Chris Hogan had four receptions for 95 yards.
Though it came in a loss, it was fitting that future Patriot Hall of Famer Vince Wilfork played the final game of his career in Foxboro.
The Patriots would win, 34-16. It was a game that nobody enjoyed. The stats were bad. The visuals were bad. The officiating was bad. If it hadn't been for a guy named Brock under center for Houston, it very well could have been a premature ending for a championship-caliber Patriots team.
And yet, the Patriots learned that evening that even if they didn't start a game the way they wanted, they were smart enough and talented enough to climb out of any potential hole and emerge victorious. That lesson would serve them very well when they took a trip to play in the Texans' stadium against the Falcons a few weeks later.
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