The Patriots continue to dig holes for themselves, then climb out of them and finish on top. Just barely. If not for 106 yards of Stephen Gostkowski field goals, the Patriots would have fallen to 8-4.
Tom Brady's performance was the biggest difference between halves. In the first two quarters he was inaccurate. He wasn't driving the ball, he was tossing it. He lobbed a pass intended for Gronkowski that was a real turkey. It was intercepted by Johnathan Joseph. That led to a Houston field goal.
In the second half Brady found a rhythm. He spread the ball to 8 different receivers, but most of the time he targeted Gronk and Edelman (12 targets each). Amendola and Vereen were his secondary targets (5 and 6 targets, respectively).
Gronkowski's return to the lineup has turned Tom Brady into a different thrower. Gronk can catch anything near him. So many balls that would be uncatchable for other players are catchable for Gronk. NFL officials, are you paying attention?
The impact of Shane Vereen's return has been less obvious, but still important. Almost all of his catches are key plays in the drive. He finally caught his first TD of the season in this game. In 4 games he's caught 23 passes for 183 yards. All other Patriot RBs have combined for 27 catches and 178 yards. Vereen adds another dimension to this offense.
As the offense has taken steps forward, the defense has taken steps back. They're struggling to stop the run, they're struggling on third down, and now they're allowing big plays.
I'll praise the defense for stopping Houston twice in the 4th quarter. Then again, Andre Johnson helped them out with a drop. And these aren't the Broncos or the Saints. These are the Texans. And the Patriots allowed 31 points.
With no Wilfork and no Mayo, the running defense probably won't improve. And I don't know how many times I can endure seeing Dont'a Hightower wandering aimlessly around the field until I snap. Hightower just seems sluggish and casual, like he's playing a post Thanksgiving dinner game of two hand touch with his family.
The offense must continue to produce for this team to win. Sound familiar? One difference between this situation and years past is that this is a much less finesse kind of offense. Gronkowski has always been a beast. Now you add big runners like Blount and Develin. I think Edelman is tough for his size too. This is a physical offense.
The Patriots host the 4-8 Browns next week. They can clinch an AFC East title with a win and a Miami loss/tie.
AP Photo/David J. Phillip