After two consecutive losses, the second their worst performance in years, the Patriots are back. Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be.
Bill Belichick teams do not lose three games in a row, which they proved Sunday night in Houston with a convincing and inspiring performance that produced a 27-6 victory over the Texans.
The triumph clinched New England’s 13th playoff berth in 15 seasons, the most in the NFL, and, coupled with losses by Denver and Cincinnati, restored the Patriots to the No. 1 seed for the AFC Playoffs. A victory in their home finale Sunday against 3-10 Tennessee will give them another AFC East title.
What a difference a week and the presence of Rob Gronkowski on the field make. After taking an early 14-0 lead and appearing to be on their way to an 11-1 record against Philadelphia at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 6, the Patriots collapsed in a heap of uncharacteristic mistakes and lost to the Eagles, 35-28. The Eagles scored 35 unanswered points before the Patriots snapped out of their funk and came close to salvaging a victory. After the game the Pats had no explanation for the three major miscues – a blocked punt for a 24-yard return, an 83-yard punt return and a 99-yard interception return – that produced Philadelphia touchdowns. They also could not explain nine dropped passes, three on their last possession.
And then there was the botched drop-kick kickoff that gave the Eagles perfect field position to launch their first touchdown drive.
That performance on the heels of the 30-24 overtime loss at Denver had Patriots Nation quivering. The season is over. Too many injuries. Not enough protection for Tom Brady. Well, the doubters were wrong, wrong, wrong. Rarely does a football team go through a season without playing a bad game. One of those where-did-that-come-from games. A we-didn’t-come-to-play game. The outing against the Eagles was one of those games. It’s that simple. No Xs and Os necessary.
The best way to come back from “one of those games” is to forget about it and focus on the next challenge, which is exactly what the Patriots did last week and Sunday night. New England’s defense held the Texans to 189 yards of offense and two first-half field goals. They sacked quarterback and former teammate Brian Hoyer six times and knocked him out of the game late in the fourth quarter. Charging fron the left side, lineman Jabaal Sheard had two sacks in the second half and forced a Hoyer fumble at the Houston 7-yard line, which set of the Patriots’ final touchdown.
After suffering a knee injury at Denver and sitting out the Eagles game, Gronk returned to the lineup and caught four passes for 87 yards and a touchdown. His 46-yard reception set up New England’s first TD. Besides Brady, he is the difference maker among the Patriots.
This victory was not problem-free. Keshawn Martin lost a fumbled punt. Brandon LaFell dropped a pass. And the injury beat went on with Devin McCourty (ankle), LeGharrette Blount (hip), Dominique Easley (thigh) and Jonathan Freeney (hand) forced to the sideline. On this night reserves stepped in and did the job.
Three games remain in the regular season. New England should beat the Titans, Jets and Dolphins, even tough the last two games are on the road. After that, the playoffs. If the Patriots perform as they did at Houston, and not as they did against Philadelphia, they will be fine.