FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots walked off the field following their 36-33 win over the Houston Texans on Sunday feeling fortunate.
Injuries have dogged the Patriots for each of the past two weeks. A crafty game plan helped them get past New Orleans in Week 2. This time, they needed a late push from their 40-year-old quarterback against a feisty Texans team that had several opportunities to win the game.
This much is clear: They can’t keep going like this.
Tom Brady, who finished with five touchdown passes Sunday, said he thinks the Patriots will be better for having gone through this kind of stretch early in the season.
“Two weeks ago, we weren’t in a position to do what we did today,” Brady said. “I thought it was a great win last week and then another great win this week. So, we’ve got to keep stringing them together. We’ve got to make improvements.”
Offensively, New England definitely turned a page. Offseason acquisition Brandin Cooks continued to impress with five receptions for 131 yards and two scores, including the winning TD. The same was true for Rob Gronkowski, who finished with eight receptions for 89 yards a week after injuring his groin.
But defensively, there is still work to do. After giving up 429 yards to the Saints, the Patriots allowed an offense led by rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson to post 417 total yards.
Watson in particular exposed holes in the Patriots defense with linebacker Dont’a Hightower sitting out for the second straight week with a knee injury.
“That dude is a slippery quarterback,” Patriots defensive lineman Alan Branch said of Watson. “It was really frustrating as a defensive front just seeing that they had him right in their grasp and not quite being able to finish.”
Meanwhile, not finishing is exactly what the Texans bemoaned after having several opportunities to put New England away. Leading 30-28 early in the fourth quarter, they settled for a 36-yard Ka’imi Fairbairn field goal with 2:24 left. Houston had failed on third-and-1 at the Patriots 18.
Corey Moore also dropped an interception on New England’s ensuing drive — just plays before Cooks’ winning touchdown.
Texans coach Bill O’Brien said he’s not into moral victories at this point.
“This is something I’ve got to do a better job, figuring out how to beat these guys,” he said. “But we haven’t done it yet. … This is pro football, either you win or you lose.”
The Texans put plenty of pressure on Brady, sacking him five times for 41 yards and forcing two fumbles (though one was really an interception).
Houston pass-rusher J.J. Watt took no consolation in that.
“It’s very frustrating” the way the game ended, he said. “If we wanted to win, we should have stopped them. We tried. It’s a tough (expletive) game. We’re trying.”
Watt had five tackles, three for a loss, and two quarterback hurries. He said the Patriots double-teamed him with a tackle and tight end, opening up the opportunity for other defenders to get to Brady. Jadeveon Clowney had two sacks, and Whitney Mercilus, Christian Covington and Marcus Gilchrist each had one apiece.
“A lot of guys stepped up and made some plays when they were left one on one,” Watt said. “That’s what happens; if I’m going to take double and triple teams all day, other guys win and that’s good.”
PICK-6? NOT QUITE
The Texans took a 20-14 lead in the second quarter when Mercilus hit Brady in the backfield and the ball flew into the air. Clowney grabbed it and lumbered 22 yards for a touchdown.
“I was just trying to make a play, trying to rush the play,” Clowney said. “It felt real good to help the offense out.”
Although Brady’s arm appeared to be moving forward when the ball came out, the play was ruled a fumble. Brady finished with five touchdowns and no interceptions in the game; officially, he has yet to throw an interception this season.
Brady had another fumble that was recovered by center David Andrews to avoid a second turnover. One play later, he threw a jump ball, but safety Corey Moore couldn’t hang onto it when he hit the ground.
It was the sixth game with five TDs and no interceptions for Brady, one short of Drew Brees for the most in a career.
About 30 Patriots players knelt or locked arms during the national anthem in response to criticism President Donald Trump levied against Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players and teams over the weekend.
The display drew sporadic boos from fans inside Gillette Stadium as the anthem began, followed by another round of boos as it concluded. Some fans could be heard shouting “stand up!” during the protest.
“We just wanted to send a message of unity, being together — obviously as a team — and also as a fraternity of NFL players,” safety Devin McCourty said.
After the game, he wore a T-shirt with the words “No Place For” written above a mushroom cloud of a brain. In the cloud’s debris were the words “Racism,” Fascism,” ”Sexism” and “Hate.”
AP Sports Writer Jimmy Golen contributed to this report.
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower