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TNF Takeaways: Patriots Continue to Make It Work With Skeleton Crew

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The New England Patriots went into Thursday night’s game against the Houston Texans as rare home underdogs. They were starting their third string rookie quarterback with just days to prepare him for what was supposed to be one of the league’s toughest defenses and injuries across the squad were there to provide a built in excuse for a Week 3 loss.

Instead, New England went out and decimated Houston on both sides of the ball en route to a 27-0 victory that left little doubt about where each team stands as the season gets into full swing.

Odd things tend to happen on Thursday Night Football, where the only reasonable expectation has become the unexpected, but this game was so incredibly lopsided, in the face of extreme adversity for the winners, that it might still be the Patriots’ most impressive performance of the Bill Belichick Era.

Consider this: Four days after their backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, went down with a shoulder injury, the Pats had to a host a fellow playoff contender on Thursday night led by their third string QB. In his week-and-a-half leading the Patriots in place of the suspended Tom Brady, Garoppolo had already proven that New England is playing chess while others play checkers. In his first regular season action of his career, the Eastern Illinois product had been setting the league ablaze as one of its best players.

But now Garoppolo was out too, leaving rookie Jacoby Brissett as the Pats’ only option to start Thursday. The truth is, Brissett wasn’t even supposed to see the field this year. The third round pick out of North Carolina State by way of the University of Florida was a developmental draft pick through and through. Now he was being thrust into the primetime spotlight as the starting quarterback for a Super Bowl contender against another team with similar aspirations. That fellow playoff contender just happened to have one of the league’s best defenses, led by the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt.

Talk about stacked odds. But the Patriots made it work, like they always seem to in the face of adversity.

No one is doubting the greatness of Tom Brady, one of the best quarterbacks in league history, but it’s truly incredible how smoothly things seem to run in New England with or without him. The three games Brady has been suspended for so far this season are the first he has missed since he was sidelined for the entire 2008 season with a knee injury. The Pats went 11-5 that year and are now 14-5 in the regular season without Brady. Compare that to say, the Dallas Cowboys, who are now 2-12 in 14 games over the last two years without their star quarterback Tony Romo.

That the Patriots can keep ticking without Brady is truly a credit to coach Bill Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and the whole New England staff for how good they are at preparing players and putting them in positions to succeed.

Because Brissett could’ve been excused for looking like a deer in the headlights on Thursday night. Fresh out of college, his first career NFL start saw him playing in primetime with Watt breathing down his neck. Instead, the rookie looked like a seasoned vet. With a simplified game plan that saw him run a very basic offense for obvious reasons, he managed the game to perfection for the Patriots.

He completed 11-of-19 passes, most of them short and intermediate, for 103 yards through the air. The rookie even got to show off his athleticism and ability as a dual-threat quarterback on a few plays, highlighted by a 27-yard touchdown run on a designed keeper late in the first quarter. Afterward, Belichick lauded the performance and preparation of his rookie.

“He handled himself great last week, this week, all week, every day,” the New England coach said. “He’s done nothing but come in here and work as hard as he possibly can.”

Brissett is likely to have to lead the Patriots for just one more week, when the Pats host the bumbling Buffalo Bills next week, and he’ll have almost twice the time to prepare for a team that’s maybe half as good as Houston. Then it will be back to Brady for New England, and it’s seeming likely that, barring a debacle against Buffalo next week, the four-time Super Bowl champion will take back the reins of the Pats at 4-0. From there, the Pats will find themselves in excellent shape, on their way to what could be one of the more promising seasons in the history of the franchise.

TEXANS GET WHAT THEY PAID FOR

Last season, the Houston Texans made the postseason as the top dog in a brutal AFC South on the strength of a fierce defense with the help of an offense that did just enough to get by.

But come playoff time, their flaws were exposed in a drubbing at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs. So this offseason, the Texans went out and poured money into their offense, signing a brand new quarterback and running back and using their most valuable draft assets on wide receivers and a center. So it had to be a bit of a shock to see their first test against a truly great team in this new season look like such a carbon copy of last season’s playoff loss.

But the Texans are getting exactly what they paid for. The truth is, Brock Osweiler isn’t a great quarterback and Lamar Miller isn’t a great running back. They’re both good but they’re not game-changers. More than that, Houston didn’t give them the support they needed, particularly along the offensive line, to do the things they’re getting paid to do on the level they’re getting paid at.

Miller is getting more opportunities with the ball in his hands than he did in Miami, but he’s still running into a lot of the same problems that he had with the Dolphins and the space isn’t there for him to carve up a defense like the Texans expected him to. Similarly, Osweiler doesn’t have the time to make the most of his skills and instead he’s forcing the ball into spots and making mistakes, like the dreadful throw into the arms of Jamie Collins last night on a pass intended for DeAndre Hopkins.

The playcalling for Houston is also truly suspect. It’s hard to know what Bill O’Brien was expecting to happen when on 3rd-and-8 from near midfield, in a game that was still scoreless at the time, he called a run for Miller out of the shotgun. The Texans got six yards on the play, which is well above average for a play of that nature, and they still had to punt. Before the Houston offense could take the field again they were down 10-0 thanks to a long Pats drive for a field goal, a fumbled kickoff and Brissett’s scoring run. From that moment on, the game wasn’t even competitive.

The Texans exit Thursday night’s debacle with a 2-1 record and are still the clear favorites to win the AFC South, thanks in large part to a Colts team that can’t get out of its own way being the only other even remotely competitive team in the division. Houston will brush themselves off after this one, chalk it up to not having enough time to prepare to face the best, and likely go into Tennessee next Sunday and roll over another weak divisional foe. But early on this season, the Texans look no better than last year’s squad, and it’s becoming apparent that their offseason approach was misguided at best. For that reason, though they might make the playoffs again, it’s hard to see them doing much more come January.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys