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Patriots

They needed this one.

Patriots wide receiver Kendrick Bourne escapes the shirt-stretching tackle attempt by the Texans’ Christian Kirksey after a 4th-quarter pass reception. Jim Davis/The Boston Globe
  • Bill Belichick discussed the ‘key play’ in the Patriots’ comeback, praised Mac Jones’s leadership

  • Nick Folk made a ‘Top Gun’ reference in describing his approach to kicking

COMMENTARY

For months — if not all the way back to April’s draft, then at least to the start of training camp — the conversation around the Patriots has centered on one position: the quarterback.

But five games into the Mac Jones era, that domineering discussion looks like it has merely distracted most of New England’s collective focus from the real problems that plague their Patriots.

Jones, by and large, has been fine. He’s handled his duties about as well as can be expected, and the fact he’s at the helm of a losing team isn’t the fault of the rookie. It’s the fault of the team around him. A team that, with the evidence continuing to mount, just isn’t very good.

It’s hard to think anything differently after Sunday’s trip to Houston, which was ultimately a 25-22 win, but still undid just about everything the Patriots might’ve gained from their so-called moral victory against Tom Brady’s Buccaneers a week earlier. Rather, the Pats reverted to what they appeared to be in the weeks before that — a sloppy, mistake-prone squad that has too often been letdown by the veterans and leaders they’re supposed to be counting on the most.

They survived Sunday thanks to the mismanagement of Texans’ coach David Culley, the struggles of Houston kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn, and the Patriots’ ability to capitalize situationally. It was a must-win game, and they won it. The season is still alive, but there continue to be major concerns — well-beyond the quarterback.

To the takeaways:

They needed this one.

All criticisms and concerns aside, the bottom line is that the Patriots won the game. There likely would’ve been no coming back from a 1-4 start, and while it’s only one game, 2-3 is a heck of a lot better.

And the Patriots’ mood afterward reflected as much. As the players and their head coach paraded to the postgame podium, the prevailing theme suggested New England was pleased to cap a difficult week with a road win, particularly after being forced to recover from a 22-9 third-quarter deficit.

It’s not as though they were downplaying the issues that led them into that predicament, least of all Bill Belichick, who was clearly displeased with the play of his defense over the course of the first half. But a couple of others noted that the corrections would come Monday, and in the wake of winning there was cause for celebration.

“Man, it felt great, man, to come back,” linebacker Matt Judon after his two-sack performance. “It was a tough week. We was down linemen, down (Jaylen) Mills, coming off a tough loss Sunday night, and to go and do something like that. We never got down on ourselves — I got a little down on us, a little frustrated, and I think we all felt it — but we just jelled together and came together as a team.”

Judon’s admission further elucidates the importance of what happened in the second half. Trailing by 13 points with nine minutes left in the third quarter, things looked bleak for the Patriots. It was beginning to look hopeless — not just for the day, but for the season. The Texans lost to the Bills by 40 points last week, and here they were beating the same team that gave the Bucs all they could handle seven days earlier. Davis Mills was having his way with them.

And the rookie did finish 21 of 29 for 312 yards and three touchdowns. They’ll need to figure out why, and fix it. Fast.

But, Sunday evening, that didn’t appear to be a pressing concern for the Pats as they headed for the plane out of Houston.

“We’re juiced up. I’m friggin’ juiced up man,” Judon said. “It felt good to get that win.”

Houston has a problem.

Most comebacks count on some type of help from the team that’s coughing up its lead. And the Texans, led by coach David Culley, were certainly complicit.

Culley was hot early, consistently being rewarded for his willingness to press the issue on fourth down. But over the course of play he’d called three timeouts before third downs, he misguidedly called for a 56-yard field goal try on a day when his kicker was struggling, and his staff called for a disastrous pre-snap bit of misdirection that was so chaotically executed that the punter wound up kicking the ball off the head of one of his lineman.

That punting error gave the Patriots possession at the Texans’ 36 when they were trailing 22-9. New England did nothing with that possession, but field position alone gave them the opportunity for three points. That seemed to kickstart the Pats a little bit, and so when Culley called for the Fairbairn kick two drives later, the Pats were poised to capitalize when taking over at their own 46. They went the distance in just seven plays, tying things up when Jones found Hunter Henry from 13 yards out.

The timeouts came back to haunt Culley late, when the Pats were in total command of the clock, and were able to effectively run out the time before their winning field goal because the Texans had no means by which to stop it. Houston also reeked of a lack of discipline throughout the day, committing eight penalties for 70 yards, including a needless hit to the head of Jones that extended what went on to become the game-winning drive.

Belichick and his staff have taken their share of criticism this season. And justifiably so. But sometimes it takes a showing from a new coach like Culley, and his disastrous game management, to gain some appreciation for the level of coaching Pats fans can sometimes take for granted.

The running backs are a mess.

A week after finishing with -1 rushing yard, that the Patriots pounded out 126 yards on the ground is a testament to the functionality of an offensive line that acquitted itself successfully in spite of missing four starters. Collectively, New England averaged better than four yards per carry, and the final 39 yards on the game-winning drive were picked up without needing to throw.

The highlight was a 24-yard burst from Brandon Bolden, while rookie Rhamondre Stevenson handled it five times on that final series — and as productive as that combination was in the moment, relying on those two with the game on the line speaks to how much of a mess the Pats’ stable of running backs has become since the summer. Back then, they were considered the consensus choice as the best positional group on the roster, and rated by some as the best collection of backs in all the NFL.

Now? That seems like quite a while ago. James White is done for the year with a hip injury. Sony Michel was traded to the Rams. JJ Taylor was inactive this week after he fumbled last week, taking the seat on the sidelines that had been reserved from Stevenson since he put the ball on the ground in Week 1.

It all might be sustainable if Damian Harris had been what the Pats hoped he would be, but after his own crippling fumble in Week 1, Harris lost another ball in a key spot Sunday, when the pigskin was punched out just before he crossed the goal line on what would’ve been his second touchdown of the day. He got his chance at retribution later, and he had a couple decent jaunts, but he was also sent to the locker room a couple times — first for a chest injury, then with a rib issue.

That left them down to Bolden, who made the roster last month primarily on his special teams prowess, and Stevenson. It might also have contributed to Josh McDaniels calling for Jones to handle a keeper on a key third down, then for a jet sweep to Jonnu Smith on what went down as the Pats’ penultimate play from scrimmage.

In that moment, it was enough. But ball security, health, depth, and reliability have all become significant enough problems with this set of backs that McDaniels may be at the point where he’s left with no choice but to alter the identity of his offense — and let Jones loose.

Quick hits

*The Pats were effusive in their praise of Lawrence Guy after the game, crediting him for pushing blocker Terrence Brooks back toward the punter on the kick that caromed off Brooks’s helmet. Guy won’t get official credit for a block, but the Texans likely survive that misjudgment if not for Guy’s bullrush. “Congrats to that fat guy,” Judon said.

*If the trade of Stephon Gilmore officially anointed J.C. Jackson as the Pats’ No. 1 cornerback, it wasn’t quite the coronation Jackson was hoping for. He was flagged for two penalties in the first half, surrendered an easy fourth-down conversion to Mills and Brandin Cooks, then got beat on the Texans’ 67-yard touchdown pass to Chris Moore. Jackson recovered as part of the second-half resurgence, though, and Cooks finished with just three catches for 23 yards.

*Devin McCourty also got burnt on that TD to Moore, overrunning the play as he came over to help. Like Jackson, McCourty also gave up a slant to allow a conversion early. With no Mills, the secondary didn’t look anything like the collection that largely limited Brady.

*The Pats officially came up with a turnover when the Texans fumbled their desperate attempt to lateral on the final play — but it was their first in three weeks. They’ve only got six takeaways through five games, and four of them came on Zach Wilson interceptions in Week 2. The lack of playmakers, outside Judon and usually Jackson, is staggering.

*Can Jamie Collins be that much-needed playmaker in his third stay with the Pats? He was limited to just a couple offensive snaps, but found his way into the backfield and registered a snack.

*The Texans started the game 5-for-6 on third down, and converted on fourth down the only time they failed to move the chains. As water sought its level, however, they finished 6-for-14. Houston picked up only three first downs in the second half.



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