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17 observations from Texans vs. Patriots

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Just after Will Fuller made a fair catch on a Ryan Allen punt with just under 13 minutes in the fourth quarter, we went to a break on the game broadcast. Prior to the break, I remember Marc saying something to the extent of "here's THE shot, right here". During the break, all of us just kept chattering to deal with the nervousness of the moment. It was hard to believe that a potential game tying drive was at hand, given all that had transpired in the first 45 minutes of action. Alas, it didn't happen and the Texans fell to the Patriots 34-16 in a game that was much closer than the final score indicated.

Here are my observations from a grueling, frustrating, exhilarating and maddening contest with the Patriots.

  1. After the game, Vince Wilfork noted that he thought this might be his last game and if it is, all there is to say is "thanks". He became an All-Pro with the Patriots and is so incredibly beloved at Gillette Stadium, but in two short years, he left his stamp on this Texans team and organization and is just as beloved as a Texan. He played really well this season for the Texans, and the impact he had on his younger teammates will be more valuable than he'll ever know. I first saw him at Santaluces High School in Florida when I was still coaching in Florida and couldn't believe that a man his size did the things he could. He is one of the most unique players and athletes the NFL has ever seen. If indeed that was the last one, it's going to be weird not seeing him around. Thanks Big Daddy.
  1. I've covered a handful of Texans-Patriots games over the past ten years and I've never seen Tom Brady take the pounding that the Texans defense put on him. The Broncos win over the Patriots in the AFC Championship game last year was fresh on my mind throughout the week and the game had that feel even more once the defense found its sea legs. That was the first time, really, that I can remember Brady struggling to get the ball off consistently against the Texans pass rush. I spent most of the ride to the airport reading what Boston media had to say about the game and the inability to consistently move the ball against the Texans was more than troubling for most scribes. The Texans just kept coming. Whitney Mercilus. Jadeveon Clowney. D.J. Reader. Brian Cushing. They. Just. Kept. Coming.
  1. What more is there to say about Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney? It felt like each guy knew what was on the line each and every play and each was going to find a way to make Tom Brady's life miserable. In the fourth quarter, Mercilus chased Brady out of bounds, giving him a shove a few yards from the sideline. Brady was running full speed so when Whit hit him, he went flying. Of course, the Gillette Stadium crowd saw Brady go flying, and they went ballistic. Brady was furious but he knew full well it wasn't a late hit and he sold the heck out of it. He was probably furious, though, because Mercilus and Clowney just kept hitting him. They had five quarterback hits between them. Then, you've got Mercilus breaking up passes 35 yards downfield and Clowney dropping into coverage and mirroring a running back's route like a defensive back. I've never enjoyed watching a defense out on the field as much as I did this unit, even without a couple of huge personnel losses to injury earlier in the season.
  1. The numbers don't really tell the story. The Patriots gained 377 yards, yet it felt like much less. Heading into the game, I saw a tweet from a New England media member saying that the Broncos had a great defense and that the Texans unit was just good. He had a different opinion after the game. When Jadeveon Clowney hit Tom Brady on a play action throw, there was this eerie quiet in Gillette Stadium. I mean, JD planted him and I'm not sure how Brady got up off the turf. He took shots like that all night and still made the plays he needed to make on this night.
  1. On that Fuller fair catch that I noted above, I was standing just a few feet away from him and after he caught it, he shook his head when he looked upfield. He realized that he had a lot of room to run. Had he taken off on that punt return, instead of making the fair catch, there's no telling when the Patriots would've been able to catch him. He had two returns - one for 18 yards and one for 16 yards. In the second quarter with the score 14-13, Fuller's 16-yard return, fighting through a few tackles, put the ball at the New England 49-yard line.
  1. Unfortunately, Fuller will see that deep ball drop everywhere he goes this offseason and it's a tough memory to have after a solid rookie season. One thing I'll remember was how he separated from Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler when the ball was in the air. I was standing at about the 15-yard line, looking back at Brock Osweiler making that throw. So, when he launched deep, I looked downfield at what he had his eyes on. When I first looked downfield, Fuller was even with Butler, then Fuller went to another gear. He pulled away from Butler but he couldn't pull in the over the shoulder basket catch. If he hangs on to that one, it's 24-20 with just over two minutes left in the third quarter and Captain Mo(momentum) would've been back on the Texans side.
  1. Kickoff returns for a touchdown in the playoffs? Can those go away, please? I shouldn't even ask - they need to go away forever. The good news was that the kickoff return unit got one back after Akeem Dent forced a Dion Lewis fumble later in the game. But, eliminate that return and it's potentially a tie game in the fourth quarter.
  1. One thing I thought the Texans could do to the Patriots offense was to get pressure rushing inside against the Patriots guards and center. Tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon graded out very well this season not allowing pressure from the outside. But, I also remember seeing the Patriots use running back chips and tight end double teams a lot on Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and J.J. Watt in 2015. Clowney had two sacks on Brady from the outside in that game at NRG Stadium, but Mercilus had a spincycle sack up the middle last year. Plus, the Texans had used Mercilus and Clowney in different spots all season long and they had success blasting the middle against nearly everyone. They did again on Saturday night.
  1. The result of that pressure was Tom Brady not fully seeing the defensive coverage down the field a lot of the night. He never saw Benardrick McKinney when he jumped in front of a Patriots receiver crossing the middle and McKinney tipped the ball into the waiting arms of Andre Hal. The Texans picked Brady twice to match his entire season total and it should've been three.
  1. Cornerback A.J. Bouye's quick reflexes got him the first interception of the night. With the score 14-3 and teetering on the brink of getting ugly if the Patriots got a drive going, Bouye held on to a tipped pass off the hands of Michael Floyd on a slant route. The Texans responded with a field goal. Bouye had another one that could've been a pick six early in the second half. He saw Floyd run the slant route and beat him to the spot. Floyd pulled up, essentially, and Bouye was nearly able to take in a second interception. That one....oh, that one could've been six the other way.
  1. That, unfortunately, however, was the story in this game. There were so many "well, if they made that play" plays. Bouye's near interception. C.J. Fiedorowicz stumbling on a deep route down the field in the first half. Fuller potentially returning that fourth quarter punt. Fuller's drop. Osweiler missing an open Hopkins on the slot fade on the first play of the fourth quarter. A yard here. A yard there. You'd think that couldn't be the case in an 18 point loss, but there were key fulcrum points that could've changed the complexion of the game.
  1. Defensive lineman Christian Covington had two quarterback hits on Tom Brady and chased him out of bounds, forcing a throwaway in the second half. With Covington, D.J. Reader and Joel Heath, the defensive end position that was supposed to be troublesome opposite J.J. Watt became a strength without Watt on the field.
  1. Reader's progress throughout the season was quietly one of the stories for this defense in 2016. The key, as Coach O'Brien often notes, is that D.J. must make that progress that's expected to go from key rookie to completely disruptive interior force in his second season. He won't be pitching this offseason so he should be able to do just that.
  1. Linebackers Brian Cushing and Benardrick McKinney were outstanding again. Nine combined tackles, one sack, one tackle for a loss, one quarterback hit and two passes defensed. Cushing played 100% of the 69 snaps and played perhaps one of his most complete games in quite some time. McKinney got caught on James White on a wheel route for a touchdown and that was a great play design by the Patriots. That said, McKinney was instrumental in holding Martellus Bennett to one catch for four yards on four targets.
  1. Patriots receiver Julian Edelman is a bad dude. He can get open in a phone booth and plays the game with a serious edge. He was involved in about two or three dustups with Texans secondary members, including one with Andre Hal. He may have been the difference in the game - eight catches for 137 yards, just a killer. If it wasn't Edelman, it was oft-discarded running back Dion Lewis. The former Pitt star did what no one has ever done in the playoffs - scoring a touchdown on a kickoff return, a run and a reception. Not bad for anyone, much less a guy that was cut by Philadelphia and Cleveland before landing a tryout in New England.
  1. This Patriots offense clearly misses Rob Gronkowski but it misses the quality offensive line it needs to protect Tom Brady much, MUCH more.
  1. It was a game right there for the taking, but this time, it didn't happen. That said, 2016 was filled with moments and stories that won't get lost in the memory bank.
    --The comeback win over the Colts on Sunday night football
    --Beating the Chiefs in week two after what the Chiefs did to the Texans in 2015
    --The emergence of the tight end group, led by C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin
    --Lamar Miller's brilliance
    --Jadeveon Clowney's sack fumble at Indianapolis
    --Whitney Mercilus' continued move toward greatness
    --DeAndre Hopkins over the shoulder catch versus the Raiders
    --Jadeveon Clowney's interception in the playoff win over the Raiders
    --Alfred Blue's touchdown run against the Bengals to help clinch the AFC South
    --Will Fuller's punt return versus Tennessee to seal a win in week four
    --Playing in Mexico City, featuring green lasers and paper airplanes
    --Quintin Demps' interception streak late in the season

--Brian Cushing playing with broken bones in his back and playing well
--Benardrick McKinney's 129 tackles and five sacks
--Tyler Ervin's punt return at Jacksonville that led to the game winning touchdown -
-Tom Savage coming in to lead the Texans to a win over Jacksonville at home
--Brock Osweiler to C.J. Fiedorowicz to tie the Colts game on Sunday night
--Vince Wilfork pressuring Andrew Luck on 4th and one in the win at Indianapolis
--A.J. Bouye locking down Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and having the best year of his career.
--Osweiler's scramble for a touchdown against the Raiders in the playoffs.
--Having an 8-1 record at NRG Stadium
--Four play, 75 yard "gotta have it" fourth quarter touchdown drive versus Cincinnati
--The joy on Duane Brown's face after the win over Indianapolis at home
--Ryan Griffin making his own Lambeau Leap after his touchdown against the Packers
--Kareem Jackson's pick six at Jacksonville
--J.L Grimes on third down...nearly every third down
--Vince Wilfork throwing the ball nearly every day at practice
--Lamar Miller's catch and widing run in the win over Indianapolis at home
--Battle red jerseys with deep steel pants...I like that look a lot.

There's plenty to fix and correct in 2017, but that's a different discussion for a later time and place. Thanks so much for reading and we'll see you again soon. The NFL Draft is coming, so you'll hear more from me soon. See ya then.

The Texans and Patriots faced each other in the Divisional Playoff at Gillette Stadium.

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