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New England Patriots escape Houston Texans with a 34-31 victory

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No matter who the New England Patriots play this season, the game seems destined to be a closely contested affair. Whether they are playing the best team in the AFC in terms of both record and point differential or whether the Patriots are testing themselves against one of the worst teams the NFL has to offer as they did on Sunday when they squared off against the Houston Texans, more often than not, at the game's end, there will only be a handful of points separating the Patriots and their opponent. With the New England Patriots currently possessing a point differential of +61 after 12 contests, the average margin of their games has been 5.1 points; a handful of points, indeed.

Should the Patriots have had an easier time of dispatching the Houston Texans considering what a lowly stretch of games the Texans have been putting together over the course of the season? Yes, one would hope that a team with championship aspirations like the ones the Patriots no doubt have would perform better when facing a clearly inferior team, one that had lost nine straight games prior to Sunday's contest.

Perhaps the Patriots would indeed have dominated the Texans had they done a better job of stifling the Texans on offense and getting their own offense started more quickly. At the end of the first half, the Patriots were facing a ten-point deficit to the Texans along with a disappointing win probability of 0.20. The problem with the Patriots in the first-half was the lack of efficiency on the offensive side of the ball.

Only one of their five first-half possessions, during which they marched the ball 55 yards down the field in six plays and culminated in a 23-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to tight end Rob Gronkowski, ended with them putting any points on the board. Their four other drives saw the Patriots gain a combined 91 yards in 26 plays (3.5 yards per play) as three of the drives stalled out, one ending with a missed 55-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, and with the other drive being brought to an unceremonious end with a Brady interception.

The Texans, on the other hand, had no difficulties executing consistently on offense in the first half. They scored on three of the five first-half possessions during which they were trying to gain yardage, with touchdown drives of 52 yards and 55 yards and a 16-yard drive that started after the Brady interception and ended with a field goal. Their other two drives were less than impressive, with the Texans gaining 17 yards in five plays on one and Case Keenum throwing an interception deep in Patriots' territory on the other, but the Texans still entered the locker room at halftime holding a 17-7 lead.

Going up against a less than fearsome defense, the Texans also had success on offense in the second half, albeit to a slightly lesser degree that ended up costing them a chance to win the game, or at least to tie it. In the second half, the Texans had two long scoring drives, an 81-yarder in 10 plays and an 80-yarder in three plays, but on their other four second-half possessions, the Texans basically went nowhere fast.

Two of those possessions were of the three-and-out variety, one was a six-play, 23-yard drive that ended with the Texans turning the ball over on downs and came at the most inopportune time for the team as they were trying to erase a three-point deficit, and the last drive of the game was a desperate affair that really had no chance of succeeding; the last drive lived up to its slim chances of success as the two plays the Texans ran with the ball on their own five-yard line, seven seconds left in the contest, and down by three points did not gain a single yard.

Usually, scoring an additional 14 points in the second half after holding a 10-point halftime lead would be enough for any team to hold on for a victory, but just like the Patriots did in the second half of last week's contest, they came out on fire after the halftime break, scoring 27 points on their first five second-half possessions. Not until the sixth possession of the second half, a paltry three-play, three-yard "drive", did the Patriots offense look the slightest bit mortal, but by then, they had done enough to gain control of the contest; the Patriots defense stepped up in the fourth quarter and made sure of that.

The impetus behind the Patriots' scoring explosion in the second-half was the throwing arm of Brady. After completing 11 of 18 passes for 108 yards in the first half, Brady was at his most efficient in the second half, completing 18 of his 23 pass attempts and throwing for 263 yards. Brady also made the most of this throws, which one should expect with an average of 11.4 yards per pass attempt, as 15 of his completions in the second half netted the Patriots a first down to keep the chains moving and the drives alive.

The rushing attack was anemic in both halves, finishing the game with 88 yards on 27 carries, most likely the result of the decision to keep running back Stevan Ridley inactive for the contest. Despite his recent fumbling woes, he is still one of the best running backs in the NFL and keeping him from playing is not going to help the Patriots' running game.

Why the Patriots felt the need to wait until the second half before running roughshod over the Texans defense is anyone's guess, but once the second-half adjustments kicked in, the Patriots passing offense experienced little resistance from their opponent, chalking up their ninth victory of the season and remaining in the running for a first-round bye in the playoffs.

As much as one might like for the Patriots to put together more statement games where they win in a decidedly commanding manner, this team does not seem like one that will be able to do that on a regular basis. As long as the wins continue to pile up for the Patriots, perhaps they will not even care that they are not as dominating as their record indicates they are.

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