It wasn't pretty, but the New England Patriots found the gas pedal in the second half to race past the Houston Texans 34-16 at Gillette Stadium on Saturday night. The Patriots advanced to their sixth straight AFC Championship Game, setting an NFL record for most consecutive championship appearances.
1. New England came out sluggish in the first half. The Patriots committed two turnovers that accounted for 10 Texans points to keep the game close early. New England ran just five plays in the first quarter due to the turnovers and a Dion Lewis kick return touchdown. Tom Brady was battered in the first half, and New England couldn't run the ball (19 yards on the ground through two quarters). Despite the poor first half, Brady and the Pats' defense took control late. Brady punctured the Texans' secondary with big plays, and the defense took advantage of a punchless Houston offense to earn the comfortable win despite not playing their best football.
2. Dion Lewis hadn't scored a touchdown since October 29, 2015. Saturday night the running back earned a hat trick. Lewis became the first player in postseason history to have a receiving, rushing and kick return touchdown in a single game. The jitterbug flashed his angle-busting speed on a first quarter touchdown reception. He then earned the Patriots' first-ever postseason kick return touchdown on a 98-yard blast. Lewis added a 1-yard TD plunge to put the game away. The Patriots took advantage of Texans linebacker Benardrick McKinney in coverage several times. After Lewis clowned McKinney early, James White blazed by the linebacker for a TD.
3. Credit the Texans' defensive front for harassing Brady all game. Houston controlled the line of scrimmage most of the game. Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus consistently disrupted the Pats' offense with penetration from all over the field. Romeo Crennel moved his game-wreckers around to create mismatches -- particularly taking advantage of center David Andrews. Moving Mercilus and Clowney inside on third downs was particularly effective. Getting in Brady's face up the gut discombobulated the Pats' offense multiple times. Mercilus' versatility was a big story. He got pressure off the edge, up the middle and even helped break up a pass down field on Lewis. Clowney and Mercilus combined for five QB hits, a sack and several other pressures.
4. Thanks in large part to the Texans' pressure, Brady was off the mark for long stretches the game. TB12 particularly struggled with passes over the middle, tossing two interceptions (one bounced off the hands of Michael Floyd, the other Brady didn't see McKinney over the middle). Brady, however, picked apart Texans cornerbacks on the edges, tossing some sublime dimes outside the numbers. Brady dropped passes of 48 yards, 45 yards and several other 20-plus yarders to Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman. With no run game to speak of, Brady carried the offense, tossing 38 passes on the night. This wasn't a vintage Brady night, however, as he completed just 18 passes for 287 yards, two TDs and two INTs for a 68.6 passer rating.
5. Brock Osweiler held the Texans' offense hostage. The Texans big-money quarterback missed throws high, low, long and short throughout the game. It's interesting to wonder how this game could have gone differently if the Texans had a playoff-caliber quarterback who could have taken advantage of the Patriots' early errors. Instead Osweiler averaged just 4.9 yards per attempt -- buoyed by some garbage-time stats -- on 40 passes. His inability to threaten defenses outside the numbers hamstrings the entire operation. Osweiler's three second-half interceptions essentially killed any chance for Houston to come back. He finished 23-of-40 passing for 198 yards, one TD and three INTs for a 47.7 rating. Brock was especially bad on third downs. In the first half, he threw behind the line of scrimmage on third-and-6. Later on a third-and-1, he rolled out and completed a pass for -1 yard. When he finally tried to throw a deep sideline route on third down in the second half he was picked off. Coach Bill O'Brien never made a move to backup Tom Savage, but expect plenty of offseason ink to be used on the Texans' unstable quarterback situation.
6. Patriots corner Logan Ryan played a monster role. The 25-year-old earned a game-sealing interception, three passes defended and seven tackles. With Ryan and safety Devin McCourty patrolling the secondary, New England dared Brock to try and pick them apart underneath, which the quarterback can't do.
7. Michael Floyd wiped away much of the goodwill in New England. The receiver had a pass bounce off his hands that turned into an interception, almost had another interception on a target to open the second half and had an offensive pass interference penalty that pushed the Pats out of scoring range. It will be interesting to see if he's active next week if Malcolm Mitchell is healthy.
8. Coming off the bye, the Patriots weren't world-beaters against an overmatched Houston team, but they "did their job" as Bill Belichick might say. Now New England awaits the winner of Sunday night's Steelers-Chiefs bout to see who will travel to Foxborough for the AFC title tilt. The test will be more difficult for New England next week.