The New England Patriots dominated the Houston Texans on Sunday in every category but the one that matters most: the score. The Patriots ran 92 plays to Houston's 58; held the ball 43 minutes and 50 seconds to Houston's 30 minutes and 29 seconds; and held an almost 3-to-1 advantage in yardage gained over Houston (472 net yards to 169, including 368 yards passing for New England to Houston's 93).
Yet the game not only went to overtime but was barely over 2 minutes away from ending in an outright tie (which is still possible, as happened to Pittsburgh and Atlanta last season).
How did this happen? Put simply, the Patriots failed to convert scoring opportunities, going 0-for-3 in the red zone until the final minute of the game. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had three costly turnovers and the team had a punt blocked at their own 20-yard line, which the Texans turned into 14 points. And Adam Vinatieri missed two field goals, knocking one off the right upright and having another blocked.
But both Brady and Vinatieri redeemed themselves in ultimately winning the game for the Patriots. And their heroics never would have been possible but for another amazing performance by the Patriots defense.
The overtime win was the Patriots' 8th straight win in extra time, giving New England an NFL record for consecutive overtime wins. It was also Brady's 7th overtime win of his career; he is now 7-and-0 in overtime, the best such overtime record in NFL history.
The win propelled the Patriots to a 9-and-2 record for the first time in their franchise's history. The last time the Patriots were 8-and-2 was 1978, and in the 11th game they went to of all places Houston (home of the then-Oilers) and lost 26 to 23. The NFL knows its irony.
A look at some of the principals in the win:
That New England Defense
The Patriots defense made some incredible stands that allowed their offense a chance to eventually win the game. The most significant was probably an overtime stop of a Houston drive on a short field, but an earlier goal-line stand help the Texans to just three points instead of a 7-0 lead.
In overtime, the Patriots failed to drive out of their end zone and were forced to punt from their 4-yard line. Ken Walter chose that time for his worst kick of the game, a 31-yarder that gave the Texans tremendous field position at the New England 35. A field goal would win it for Houston and the Texans needed go very few yards to be in range for a relatively easy one.
But the Texans gained nothing. In fact, they lost five yards, rushing once for no gain, rushing again for a loss, then passing incomplete. Willie McGinest made both plays on the run stops (for more on him, see below). The Texans were forced to punt.
While McGinest took over the game on that drive, the entire defense was in on the earlier goal-line stand. Early in the first quarter, the Texans put together a drive, thanks to a questionable pass interference call on rookie free safety Eugene Wilson, to the New England 14-yard line. A trick play (a lateral to Texans receiver Jabbar Gaffney) gave the Texans a first down at the one. Field position and all the momentum, too, were in their favor.
The Patriots defense rose to the challenge. Linebacker Roman Phifer and back-up safety Chris Akins stuffed the Texans' first run for no gain. On second down, mammoth defensive tackle Ted Washington broke through the Houston line to single-handedly stop another running attempt. Finally, cornerback Ty Law stopped the Texans on third down, breaking up a pass to Andre Johnson even as the receiver got his hands on the ball. The Texans were forced to settle for a short field goal and the Patriots set a defensive tone for the rest of the game that only their offense's miscues would challenge.
Although the defense gave up 79 yards to Houston on this drive, the Texans lost 14 yards on their other first-half drives.
The defense did everything it was supposed to, and more. Houston quarterback Tony Banks had a passer rating average of 95 entering this game; the Patriots defense pegged him to 61, his second-worst of the season. The defense sacked him twice and held him to 93 yards passing. Texans running back Domanick Davis was the league's best rookie rusher, but New England allowed him just 69 total yards and a paltry 2.9 yards-per-carry average.
New England's is now the league's seventh-best defense. And they are only improving as players like Washington and linebacker Ted Johnson return from injury.
What came over Patriots defensive lineman/linebacker Willie McGinest on Sunday? The 10-year veteran had one of his best games in over a year on Sunday, leading the team with eight tackles, three of which went for a loss. It was the first time he topped the team in tackles since a win over the Bears in Chicago on November 10th last season, when he had six. He also added a defended pass in coverage and was in on several pressures of Houston quarterback Tony Banks although McGinest was not credited with any sacks.
Another defender who deserves mention is Patriots cornerback Tyrone Poole, who had one of the prettiest pass break-ups a defender could ever hope to make.
In the mid-second quarter, Texans rookie super star receiver Andre Johnson beat Poole and would have had a sure touchdown with a pass put right into his outstretched hands. But Poole timed his leap perfectly and stuck a few fingers into the ball's trajectory, knocking it away from Johnson. The play saved a score and proved that the New England front office did indeed have a fantastic off-season, picking up players like Poole as free agents.
It should also be noted that Poole was the Patriots' top punt returner on Sunday, filling in for the injured Troy Brown. Poole had 4 returns for 42 yards in the game.
The Patriots traded up in the 2002 draft to get that year's John Mackey Award winner, given to the best tight end in college football. That player, Daniel Graham, was touted as having the perhaps the best, if not simply an amazing, set of hands that would make him a stand-out pro.
On Sunday, that analysis was both proved and disproved in dramatic fashion. Graham caught the first ball thrown to him, a six-yard gain in the first quarter. But then he missed the next four straight sent his way, one of which came on a third down and stalled a Patriots drive at the Houston 21-yard line. The resulting field goal attempt was no good and the Patriots would come to dearly miss those points.
Graham seemed to have really lost his confidence ever since a missed catch last week against Dallas. In that game, Graham made a nice move to get down the left sideline and Brady put the pass right between two defenders, but Graham pulled up and "short armed" the ball rather than take what was almost certain to be a very hard hit by incoming Dallas safety Roy Williams. The pass fell incomplete and earlier doubts about Graham's ability loomed larger.
But just as the derogatory nicknaming began to grow more frequent ("Alligator Arms" and "Stone Hands" among the most common and printable), Graham made some of the most critical catches of the game against Houston.
His fourth miss of the game was his last. He caught the next three, starting with a 10-yard gain in the third quarter. Brady then found him for an astounding 33 yards following a mad scramble to avoid the Texans' on-rushing defensive linemen. Needing a touchdown just to tie the game, the Patriots were in a desperate situation, facing a third-and-ten with just over two minutes remaining. The catch kept alive what would be an 80-yard scoring drive, but the drama was far from over.
The Brady-to-Graham connection had more linkage to make. Stuck with a fourth-and-one from the Houston four-yard line, the game in the balance, the Patriots called for Brady to run a bootleg. The Texans were fooled not at all and defensive end Kailee Wong chased Brady backwards across the field, when Brady suddenly heaved the ball into the end zone. Graham was waving at him frantically but had two defenders around him. The ball hit Graham on the fingertips as he leapt and fell, the ball clutched to his chest.
Brady misses the throw, or Graham misses the catch, and the game is over. Instead, the play allowed the Patriots to play into a heart-stopping overtime.
The jury on Graham is still out. He has a long way to go before he is considered the clutch player of Patriots lore, be it top former tight end Ben Coates or current fan favorite Troy Brown. After all, his game-tying touchdown was just his second of the season, which is his career high. But despite his streak of miscues Graham won at least a temporary place in the favor of Patriots nation on Sunday with his persistence and two game-changing catches.
In New England, the coaching staff demands that the team take the season one game at a time, so I will abide by their philosophy and look just one game ahead.
One of the league's premiere match-ups will take place on the Sunday after Thanksgiving as the 9-2 Patriots travel to Indianapolis to battle the 9-2 Colts. Currently, the Colts hold a slight advantage over New England in the AFC in the fight for a first round bye in the playoffs, meaning the winner of this game will have a sizeable advantage heading into the post-season.
The Colts present an interesting challenge, as they shared the AFC East with the Patriots until realignment two years ago. In 2001, the Colts were in a way the catalyst for what became New England's Super Bowl run: the 0-2 Patriots hosted the Colts in week 3 that year and destroyed them, 44-10, a game that included a hit by then-linebacker Bryan Cox that set the tone for the rest of the season. The Patriots later pummeled the Colts again in week six, bringing the Patriots to a 3-3 record as they clawed their way to the top of the NFL.
That season, the Patriots' mastery of the Colts was a key element to their success. Whichever team comes out on top this coming Sunday will look back on this game as a similarly critical win.