Even on the replay it wasn’t overly clear. There was Will Fuller in the end zone, with the football in his hands, turning and about to make that final step that would legitimize the catch and the touchdown.
And then, there was Jonathan Jones with his hand knocking the ball free. Was he too late? Or was this another one of those Patriot plays that we’ve seen so often over the years? How often have the Patriots been a finger-tip or a fraction of an inch away from disaster when someone makes a nick-of-time play to save the day? (Remember the tackle that kept Jessie James out of the end zone in the Championship Game against Pittsburgh a few years ago, or the seeming touchdown pass that was batted away in last year’s Super Bowl?)
When the play originally happened – and it was called a touchdown on the field – the Houston crowd erupted. After years of frustration – especially against New England – they had finally driven a dagger through the monster’s heart. The touchdown had made it 20-3 with just 5:49 left in the third quarter, with the extra-point pending.
But, after a small eternity in the review booth, referee Tony Corrente came back with agonizing news for the 72,025 in attendance at NRG Stadium (and the millions of Houston fans and Patriot haters watching on Sunday Night Football). Incomplete pass. Third-and-ten from the New England 35.
Immediately, the Houston fan-base knew exactly what would happen next. An incomplete pass followed by either a punt or a missed field goal. They had had their foot on the throats of the once-beaten defending champions. And now, New England would escape again and fashion another one of their inevitable comebacks. At that point, the mood in Houston was glum, indeed.
If there was a moment last Sunday night when the trajectory of a franchise might have changed, this was it.
On the third-and-ten play, Houston lined up with DeAndre Hopkins wide right and Kenny Stills wide left. The Patriots responded with man coverage, with safety Duron Harmon over the top. Harmon, however, didn’t stay there long. As Hopkins pressed his way up-field, Harmon drifted to his side to join Stephon Gilmore in a double-team. That left Stills one-on-one with Jones, the hero from the previous play.
Knowing there was no inside help, Stills stemmed inside long enough to get sufficient separation from Jones, and then turned up-field running to almost the exact spot where the potential touchdown pass to Fuller had gone.
While quarterback Deshaun Watson had put together a magnificent game by getting the ball quickly out of his hands, this time Deshaun held the ball – dancing adroitly around the confines of the pocket until it was time for lightening to strike for the second time.
Unperturbed over the previous result, Deshaun Watson launched his second consecutive perfect 40-yard bomb – this time to Stills in that same left corner of the end zone. This time Jones wasn’t close enough to come up with another miracle, and this time, when the official’s arms went up, there would be no reprieve.
Depending on how the rest of the season goes, this might be the moment the Texans will look back on. However significant this game may or may not turn out to be for Houston, it is more than a little significant to the rest of the league. Watson and his Houston cohorts became the first conventional offense to vanquish what has been a remarkable defensive season from the Patriots.
Pushed around a few weeks ago by the wildly unconventional Baltimore Ravens, the New England defense, nonetheless, came into the contest ranking second in total defense and having allowed the fewest points of any NFL team (117).
The lynch-pin of the defense is a pass defense that was on a historic pace. Entering the game, they allowed only 53.9% of the passes thrown against them to be completed; had allowed just 4 touchdown passes against 20 interceptions; and were muffling opposing passers, holding them to a 50.5 rating (the NFL average is 91.0).
In addition, their run defense – ranked ninth in the league – was completely smothering Houston’s sixth-ranked running attack. Houston finished the night with just 52 rushing yards and a 2.3 average per run, leaving the Texans’ offensive hopes squarely on Watson and the passing game.
Deshaun didn’t disappoint. Completing 18 of 25 passes (72.0%) Watson threw for 234 yards and 3 touchdowns (he also caught a touchdown pass – so the Patriots were hit for as many touchdown passes in this game as they had allowed all season to that point). Deshaun’s passer rating for the evening was a more than satisfying 140.7.
Although they played more zone against the Texans than they usually do, the Patriots are known for nearly air-tight man coverage, supported by one of football’s best pass rushes. With 37 sacks already this year, New England is dropping their opposing passers on 9.1% of their drop-backs – both of those figures ranking fourth in the league. Basically, your receivers never have time to shake free before the pass rush is burying your quarterback.
As Watson has a history of holding the ball (in an earlier game against Baltimore he held the ball for 10.31 seconds before finally taking a sack), he seemed an unlikely candidate to re-write the narrative. But that’s just what Deshaun and the Texans did.
Whether against zone or man, Watson didn’t diddle around in the pocket. He looked for the first open receiver and got the ball out of his hands. In truth, the Patriots had their moments. They sacked Deshaun three times and hurried him three other times. For the most part, though, the ball was gone before New England knew what hit them. A couple times, the Patriots had free blitzers in on Watson who still couldn’t reach him in time.
With 6:33 left in the third quarter, and Houston facing third-and-seven, Harmon came untouched on a blitz. But before he could get to the Houston quarterback, Watson delivered a rocket throw down the middle to Stills for 20 yards and a first down. Early in the fourth quarter, on a similar play, Watson completed a 27-yard pass over the middle to Hopkins, even though Kyle Van Noy came virtually untouched across the line.
Against zones, they ran a series of short turn arounds. The game plan against the man coverages involved short crossing patterns that forced the Patriot defenders to work through traffic. It was a simple, basic, patient approach that strained the New England defense like no one they have faced so far this season.
In just his third season, Watson has become very proficient at understanding defenses and quickly deciding where to go with the football. For the first time in maybe forever, the future looks pretty bright for the Houston Texans franchise.