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The Patriots’ Very Real Offensive Problems Could Doom Them

Or they could be just fine. But what we saw against the Houston Texans on Sunday night—and for most of this season—is cause for concern.

NFL: New England Patriots at Houston Texans Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Life is full of contradiction. Youth is wasted on the young. Wisdom is knowing nothing. The New England Patriots might win the Super Bowl, but they also kind of suck. Most of the noise around the Patriots comes from New England fans, haters, and observers alike watching this paradox play out year after year after year. The latest example of this contradiction came in New England’s 28-22 loss to Houston on Sunday Night Football, which was nowhere near as close as the score indicated. The game came in Houston’s NRG stadium where New England beat the Falcons 34-28 in the Super Bowl, the perfect paradoxical Pats performance, but the only similarity to that win over Atlanta was that New England had three points at halftime. New England is bad again, and now we’re all waiting for the Pats’ pendulum to swing back in the other direction and destroy us.

Let’s be clear: Nobody is writing off the Patriots in the playoffs (except for the Patriots fans doing it as performance art). There have been more premature proclamations of the Patriots’ demise than can be counted. All have been wrong. We’ve seen the Patriots look awful in September in 2001 and 2003 and 2005 and 2012 and 2014 and 2017 and 2018. We went through this last December when Brady looked his age in a 17-10 loss to the Steelers. Until we see Tom Brady retired or in a different uniform or recalled by Hades to fulfill whatever unspeakable bargain he made to extend his playing career, the Patriots are not out of Super Bowl contention.

Having said that, Sunday night showed just how awful the Pats offense is. Brady completed 24 of 47 pass attempts for 326 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception, but those numbers were skewed by late production and cover up New England’s offensive ineptitude for most of the game. Brady completed just 7 of 19 passes in the first two quarters (37 percent), matching his career low for a first half (minimum 15 attempts), according to ESPN Stats & Info. Brady yelled at his young receiving corps on the sideline as the Texans jumped out to a 14-3 lead. Houston scored their second touchdown after Brady was intercepted by cornerback Bradley Roby, who outplayed a meek effort from rookie receiver N’Keal Harry for the ball.

It was the only ball Brady threw Harry’s way all night. Fellow rookie receiver Jakobi Meyers had three catches for 46 yards but also drew Brady’s ire in the first half. It wasn’t just rookie receivers who messed up. Brady missed receiver Phillip Dorsett on one pass by roughly two dozen yards, suggesting even one of the Pats longer-tenured receivers was not on the same page with the GOAT. Center Ted Karras left the game with a knee injury, missing his first snaps of the season and adding another injury to a New England offensive line that has only recently gotten healthy (right tackle Marcus Cannon also left the game but returned shortly after halftime).

New England’s best drive in the first three quarters was their first, when they drove 69 yards on 14 plays to Houston’s 5 before settling for a field goal. But while the Patriots came out in heavy personnel with two tight ends and pounded the ball with running back Sony Michel for most of that drive, they all but abandoned that strategy afterward. Michel ran the ball six times on New England’s first drive for 33 yards, but finished with 10 carries for 45 yards. When the Patriots went to lean on the young receivers, they often failed. Even receiver Julian Edelman was mostly blanketed on Sunday. He finished with six catches for 106 yards and a score, but 44 of those yards came when the Texans inexplicably blitzed and missed a coverage on first-and-30 (that’s not a typo).

None of this is new. New England managed just 30 points combined in the past two weeks and has been carried by their defense’s absurd scoring pace for the entire season. Seven weeks into the season, the Patriots defense had outscored their opposing offenses (not counting extra points or field goals).

“The strength of our team is our defense and our special teams,” Brady said on The Greg Hill Show on WEEI Sports Radio Network after beating the Eagles in Week 11. “On offense we just have to take advantage when we get opportunities and understand where our strengths lie and try and play to them.

When the Patriots’ defense and special teams are less than stellar, the offense is exposed, and that was the case Sunday. Their defense was littered with so many players demonstrating flu-like symptoms that many came to Houston on a separate airplane, so take this with a grain of salt and some Tamiflu, but: Late in the third quarter, Houston’s Deshaun Watson uncorked a 35-yard touchdown pass to receiver Will Fuller V in the end zone for a rare deep strike against the Pats defense. The play was overturned after a lengthy review, but on the next snap Watson went back for a 35-yard touchdown to receiver Kenny Stills Sr.—almost to the exact same spot—that burned the Patriots’ cover-zero defense and deflated the air of invincibility surrounding the vaunted Pats defense.

New England allowed as many passing touchdowns on Sunday (four) as they had in the entire season entering the game. One of those throws was a DeAndre Hopkins touchdown pass to Deshaun Watson (again, that’s not a typo).

Watson became the second player with three passing touchdowns and a receiving touchdown in a regular-season game in the Super Bowl era. Watson said he was happy with the win after the game.

“That’s the GOAT,” Watson said. “So it’s special to me before he hangs it up, I had to at least get one.”

Watson was talking about Tom Brady, but the real GOAT he beat on Sunday was Bill Belichick, although he was off on Sunday too. New England lined up for a two-point conversion after its first touchdown and then took a delay of game on purpose when Belichick didn’t like the defensive alignment. New kicker Kai Forbath promptly missed the extra point from the longer distance. On defense and special teams, New England has mopped the floor with a litany of awful quarterbacks but has been shredded by Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson, caught Dak Prescott in a sideways rain storm, and gets Patrick Mahomes next week. The Pats’ aggressiveness on defense under defensive play-caller Steve Belichick (the son of Bill), relying on blitzing without safety help, is getting stress-tested against better QBs with bigger football IQs than the ones they had seeing ghosts.

The victory doubled the amount of wins the Texans franchise has against the Patriots—they are now 2-9 vs. the Patriots all-time. Meanwhile the Patriots are now 10-2, which puts them in line for the no. 2 seed in the AFC with the same record as Baltimore, which owns the head-to-head tiebreaker. If the Patriots lose two more times this season, say to the Chiefs next week and the Bills in Week 16, Buffalo could win the AFC East for the first time since 1995. This is the closest the Patriots have come to losing the division in years, and it’s also the worst the Patriots have looked all season. They’ll also be fine.