The New England Patriots rallied from 13 points down to defeat the Houston Texans 25-22 on Sunday. Here are five things we learned in that Week 5 matchup at NRG Stadium:
1. Cornerback depth is a big problem
First off: No, Stephon Gilmore would not have been eligible to play in this game even if he hadn’t been traded last week. But shipping out the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year (for a 2023 sixth-round draft pick, at that) left the Patriots dangerously thin at the cornerback position.
That depth immediately was tested when starter Jalen Mills was ruled out for Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury. With Joejuan Williams — a healthy scratch last week — starting in his place, the Patriots made Texans third-string rookie quarterback Davis Mills look like a Pro Bowler. Mills completed 21 of 29 passes for 312 yards and three touchdowns with no turnovers, posting a substantially better stat line than Tom Brady did against this same New England defense seven days earlier.
Williams struggled — he was in coverage on a 37-yard flea-flicker touchdown to Chris Conley and a 40-yard bomb to Conley on fourth-and-2 — but wasn’t the only weak link in this group. More concerning was the play of No. 1 corner J.C. Jackson, who gave up a 67-yard touchdown to elevated practice squadder Chris Moore, was beaten by Brandin Cooks on a fourth-and-1 slant and was penalized twice — once on third down and once in the end zone. Safety Kyle Dugger also had trouble corralling Houston’s tight ends, as was the case when these teams met last season.
After falling behind 22-9, the Patriots’ defense eventually stabilized to keep the Texans off the scoreboard for the final 28 minutes. Jackson was better after halftime, too, foiling Cooks on two key third downs. But this was a problematic performance against a Texans team that had scored just nine total points in Mills’ first two starts.
Head coach Bill Belichick was asked about the play of his secondary during his postgame news conference.
“As a defense, I don’t think we played well very well in the first half, period, so we have to do a lot better than that,” Belichick replied. “To give up two 20-play drives, giving up 80-yard touchdown, that’s not very good.”
The Patriots’ next opponent, the explosive Dallas Cowboys, has scored 41, 36 and 44 points in its last three games.
2. Mac Jones is a gamer
The rookie quarterback led the first game-winning drive of his young NFL career: a seven-minute march that culminated in a 21-yard Nick Folk field goal with 15 seconds remaining. He completed 12 of his final 13 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown as the Patriots scored points on each of their last four possessions. He finished the game with blood on his jersey after taking a shot to the chin.
It wasn’t a perfect outing — Jones threw one interception and had at least three other passes that could or should have been picked — but it was another important milestone in the first-round draft pick’s development. Belichick was impressed.
“Mac’s been good for us all year in terms of his leadership, his resilience and always counting on him to do the right thing,” the coach said. “And he really does it at a high level, so it’s been impressive.”
Jones also opened with nine straight completions and went 23-for-30 overall. He’s posted a completion rate above 73 percent of his passes in four of his first five pro starts.
Kudos to the Patriots’ offensive line, too, which delivered an all-around solid performance despite missing four starters of its five preferred starters.
3. Matt Judon is a beast
There’s no debating who the Patriots’ best defensive player has been this season. It’s Judon, who’s on pace for one of the best seasons by a New England pass rusher in franchise history. His two sacks on Davis Mills — which came in a three-play span in the Patriots’ red zone — upped his season total to 6 1/2, the most ever by a Patriots defender through five games.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett holds the Patriots’ single-season sack record with 18 1/2 in 1984. If Judon keeps up his current pace, he’ll finish with 22.
Just five Belichick-era Patriots have even tallied 10 sacks in a season. It’s an eclectic and unexpected list: Chandler Jones (11 1/2 in 2013 and 12 1/2 in 2015), Mike Vrabel (12 1/2 in 2007), Andre Carter (10 in 2011), Mark Anderson (10 in 2011) and Tully Banta-Cain (10 in 2009).
The Patriots also got a productive cameo from returning veteran Jamie Collins, who hardly played on defense but bagged a fourth-quarter sack.
4. Ball security remains a real issue
The Patriots should have opened the game with back-to-back touchdown drives. They gashed their way deep into Texans territory on their second possession before Damien Harris fumbled at the six-inch line. It was the second red-zone fumble of the season for the third-year running back and the Patriots’ fourth lost fumble in five games, nearly equaling their total from all of last season (five).
Belichick-coached teams typically aren’t this careless with the ball. The Patriots have ranked in the top 10 in fewest fumbles lost in 11 of the last 12 seasons and regularly finish in the top three. Since 2009, they’ve lost an average of 6.7 fumbles per season. They’re on pace to blow past that mark this year. Jones also has thrown five interceptions over his last three games after being turnover-free in his first two.
The Patriots need to clean this up. They’re 1-3 when losing the turnover battle this season. We’ll see whether Harris is fit to play this week against Dallas after leaving Sunday’s game with chest and ribs injuries.
5. The Patriots are lucky to have Nick Folk
Folk couldn’t deliver the Patriots an unlikely win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week. But otherwise, he’s been nearly flawless. Though the 36-year-old did shank an extra point against Houston, he went 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts, including two 52-yarders and a chip-shot game-winner. Folk’s 56-yard doink in the pouring rain against Tampa was the only field goal he’s missed in his last 41 attempts dating back to September of last season. His field goals have accounted for 42 of the Patriots’ 96 points this season.
On a day when the Texans’ special teams torpedoed their chances, the Patriots’ came through.
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