Week 3’s slate of games were expected to be dramatic on the field, but their significance paled in comparison to what took place off the field this past Sunday. On Saturday, President Donald Trump took to the mic and Twitter yet again, this time voicing his disapproval of players kneeling during the national anthem, fueled by the NBA’s Golden State Warriors refusing to attend their championship White House ceremony.
In the spirit of now-free agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick, players from all across America across all teams symbolically joined together against the establishment through nonconformity during the national anthem during Sunday’s games.
In Detroit, players joined arms during the performance of the national anthem, and singer Rico LaVelle knelt after his performance. In New Jersey, players also locked arms in solidarity. In Chicago, all players except offensive lineman Antonio Villanuela, a three-time veteran of Afghanistan, kneeled or remained in the locker room during the anthem. In Buffalo, Broncos players blared anti-Trump music in the locker room. The Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks did not come out onto the field until after the anthem was sung.
In New England, players from both the Texans and Patriots chose to lock arms during the national anthem, though more than ten Pats players chose to take a knee instead. Many of these players, such as Devin McCourty and Malcolm Butler, also refused their invitation to the White House in April. Tom Brady, a well-known supporter and friend of the President’s, remained standing, though he made a statement calling Trump’s speech “divisive.”
The actions before the game made the action on the field of secondary importance. Nonetheless, the players braved through the off-field conflict and near-90 degree heat for a game that was well worth watching.
From the opening kick, the expectation was that each team was going to score the ball. New England was fresh off a 36-20 rout of the Saints in New Orleans, while the young Texans held off the Bengals for a 13-9 win. The game kicked off to a fast start when Tom Brady set up Brandon Cooks for a 44 deep ball. Brady then found Rob Gronkowski for an easy five-yard score.
Houston responded with a stout defense and ten more points. DeShaun Watson found running back Bruce Ellington for a 29-yard touchdown pass to take a 10-7 lead. The Patriots defense struggled to make open tackles from from this point on, and it nearly bit them in the back. The Patriots forced an poor throw from Watson and cornerback Stephon Gilmore returned it deep in Houston territory. The Patriots offense followed it with a wide open 7-yard Chris Hogan touchdown.
It got uglier from there, with Houston scoring ten more unanswered points. The offense pulled it together before the half as Brady found Hogan again for a 47-yard strike over the middle of the field. McDaniels will be second-guessed all week for his playcalling, but he kept the middle of the field open for Brady and New England’s receivers throughout the game. At halftime, Houston’s pass rush accounted for three sacks and twice as many close calls for Tom Brady.
The Patriots came out of the half gunning, as Brady found Brandin Cooks for a 42-yard score to make it 28-20. The New England defensive unit in the the third quarter raised some eyebrows as Houston’s superstar receiver DeAndre Hopkins was covered not by Malcolm Butler, but by fellow undrafted cornerback Johnathan Jones, with safety help from Devin McCourty. Butler has played poorly since training camp, and the lessening playing time reflects Belichick’s disappointment in the former Pro-Bowler. Butler did play, but only in certain packages and in the game’s key moments, though it fuels the ongoing speculation that Butler may be traded.
The Patriots defense continued to bend as Houston looked to seal the game with a 30-28 lead less than three minutes to go in the game inside New England’s territory, until the defense made a key stop on Texans RB D’Onta Foreman to force 4th and 1. Houston then kicked a field goal to go up 33-28, giving Tom Brady 2:20 with a timeout and a 2-minute stoppage to move down the field to win the game.
The final drive started shaky, with an incompletion and a holding call after another incompletion on 2nd down. Interestingly, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien chose to give New England a 2nd and 20 instead of 3rd and 10 with a minute and a half to spare. Where the goal is to give Brady as few opportunities to win the game as possible, giving him an extra play for the sake of chewing clock is questionable.
Patriots wideout Danny Amendola was not impressive in the return game, but he more than made up for it with a tremendous 27-yard grab on 3rd and 18 to keep the Patriots’ final drive going. The very next play, Tom Brady dialed up to Brandin Cooks for the eventual game-winning 25-yard touchdown. Brady’s pass was up high enough for Cooks to grab it, and Cooks came down in bounds with outstanding footwork. Up 34-33, the Patriots went for 2 to ensure a Houston field goal would not beat them. Brandin Cooks was open on the left side again on the conversion play and made a much easier catch for the two points.
The Texans then had 23 seconds to answer with a field goal or touchdown. DeShaun Watson found DeAndre Hopkins for 21 yards over the middle, but he failed to call a timeout and stop the clock, leaving the Texans with 2 seconds instead of 13. The difference proved inportant as Watson was intercepted on a Hail Mary attempt to close out the game.
The game was a reminder of how much New England needs their usual starters such as Dont’a Hightower and Marcus Cannon back on the field. The offensive line failed to give Brady the time he traditionally needs to throw, but the 40-year old adjusted with quick strikes to Cooks, Hogan and Gronkowski when big yardage was needed. Nate Solder in particular had his hands full all game with Jadeveon Clowney, and Brady was forced to look for the defensive end even more so than two-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
Overall, the Patriots were blindsided by the mobile ability of DeShaun Watson on defense and the dynamic pass rush of J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus when on offense. Both the offensive line and the cornerbacks had disappointing performances against the middling Texans, after two decent games against Kansas City and New Orleans. The hope was for these positions to have redemption games, but they ended up playing worse than before.
All in all, this was another classic “we have Tom Brady and you don’t” game, as the quarterback marched down the field to win in the clutch yet again.
In Week 4, New England faces a reeling Panthers team fresh off a blowout loss to a Saints team that the Patriots dismantled in Week 2. The Panthers should still play them much tougher than Houston, and adjustments will be made. Stay tuned!