Every time the coronation of Bill Belichick seems excessive, every time it feels like the adulation toward this era of the Patriots borders on overzealous, New England goes and does something like this.
For the second time in three weeks, the Patriots were underdogs with a first-time starter at quarterback, and, for the second time in three weeks, they thoroughly outclassed a probable playoff team. New England’s ability to march on with second- and third-string options at the most important position in sports is sure to snag headlines, but what the Patriots pulled off in their 27–0 thrashing of the Houston Texans on Thursday night is a testament to the watertight plans Belichick and friends have perfected over years of honing.
It’s become trite to say that New England’s strength lies in sabotaging what any other team does best, but clichés are built on kernels of truth. The Patriots were content with playing two high safeties often, taking away the Texans’ chances to throw the ball down the field. By the 8:19 mark in the third quarter, the Texans were trailing by two touchdowns, but even with Brock Osweiler throwing 41 passes, DeAndre Hopkins finished with just four catches on eight targets.
Based on simple in-the-box math, the Patriots dared Houston to pound away with the running game. What followed was a beatdown of the Houston offensive line’s subpar interior. Throw out a meaningless 15-yard gain near the end of the game, and running back Lamar Miller finished with just 65 yards on 20 carries while trailing for more than 47 minutes of game action.
With Hopkins and early-season star Will Fuller declawed in the passing game, backup tight end Ryan Griffin — the embodiment of a computer-generated Madden player that lands on your roster three years into Franchise mode — led the Texans in both targets (10) and receptions (eight). Anyone but Hopkins topping those categories is a nightmare scenario for Houston, and it’s made worse by Osweiler’s shaky ability to work the underneath areas of a defense. In every way, the Patriots lured Houston into playing as the worst version of itself offensively, and the results were an unwatchable slog.
Blanking a team that spent a combined $63 million guaranteed on three free agents and used its first four picks in the 2016 draft on offense is a feat, but the “that’s so Patriots” area of the night belonged to the bludgeoning New England handed out on special teams. Upon hearing of the NFL’s change to its kickoff rules before this season — moving the ball to the 25-yard line on touchbacks — Belichick must have Mr. Burns’d his way through the afternoon.
The Hooded One seems to derive perverse enjoyment out of finding new ways to extract whatever value he can out of the minutiae of the game (he was the first coach to truly embrace the opportunity to defer kickoffs), and Stephen Gostkowski’s ability to pop up his kicks and force returns from the 1- or 2-yard line has already become yet another installment. Twice, Texans kick returners fumbled away possessions that were supposed to follow New England scores, and although that’s almost entirely a product of luck (even Belichick’s black magic doesn’t extend that far), those are still opportunities made possible by a brand-new tactic the Patriots have refined in a single offseason.
As far as punter Ryan Allen’s sorcery goes, New England deserves all the credit. Allen averaged 47.6 yards per punt, without a single one of them being returned. On non-kickoffs, the Texans’ starting field position on seven possessions was their own 10.6-yard line. All night, the Patriots bled Houston’s offense out before its drives could even start.
All of that, tying one hand behind the Texans’ back in every way possible, is what allows New England to trot out Jacoby Brissett and win going away. Brissett finished 11-of-19 and ripped a couple of impressive throws — an early slant to Malcolm Mitchell stands out — but regularly looked the part of a third-round rookie shoved into spot duty. The Patriots had nothing down the field and sputtered when the field shrank in the red zone. But with the deck stacked so decidedly in New England’s favor elsewhere, he was more than enough.
The soundness of the offensive approach was again remarkable, just as it was in their first two wins. Extra offensive tackle Cameron Fleming played 15 snaps, which both provided extra protection against Houston’s pass rush and meant fewer plays with the Texans’ terrifying sub package defensive fronts on the field. J.J. Watt (who still doesn’t look healthy) was nonexistent, and Jadeveon Clowney’s quiet night is a testament to the Patriots’ young guards. And just like they were in Jimmy Garoppolo’s debut in Arizona, quick throws were a staple of New England’s offense (the after-the-catch brilliance of Julian Edelman and Martellus Bennett remains a subtle but deadly weapon).
This round of quarterback roulette was a little different, though, in that Brissett’s talent as a runner allowed and encouraged the Patriots to dig even deeper into their bag of tricks: They ran the triple option more than once; on Brissett’s 27-yard touchdown run, he faked a handoff to LeGarrette Blount moving left before swinging back around the right side; the 275-pound Bennett even took a handoff on a freaking end around. That Edelman wasn’t allowed to chuck one deep at some point is actually shocking.
When the offense trotted off as the game ended, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels wore a massive grin as he slapped Brissett on the helmet. Watching New England dominate the minutiae yet again — and have fun doing it — was another indicator that Belichick and Co. seem to genuinely enjoy solving these equations. Considering how great they’ve gotten at it, who can blame them?
Three weeks into the season, the Patriots are still undefeated in spite of their revolving door at quarterback; we might as well hand out the Coach of the Year trophy now. Denver’s approach on offense with Trevor Siemian at quarterback has been inspired, but what New England has been able to do in every facet of the game so far is about as close as a team can get to squeezing everything it can from a roster. Belichick hasn’t bought a tube of toothpaste since 2001.
He’s 64 now. Thursday night, he tied Curly Lambeau — whose name graces the most famous stadium in football — for fourth on the all-time regular-season wins list. With the win, he’s now 13–5 in games without Tom Brady since the QB took over as starter. There’s nothing interesting about reveling in Belichick’s greatness, but until he stops finding interesting ways to further that greatness, there’s no reason to not stand in awe of it.