The Patriots did not play well. Quarterback Tom Brady had his first multi-interception game of the year, completing just 47.4 percent of his passes. Running backs Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount had just 72 yards on 21 carries. The Pats committed three turnovers for only the third time in the last three years.
And yet New England won. By 18 points.
Two conclusions can be drawn.
First, the Patriots are so freakin’ good that they can win playoff games against strong defensive opponents despite struggling on offense.
Second, the Patriots picked a good time to play a poor game. The Texans are so inept on offense that New England could afford to lack rhythm and make multiple major mistakes and get away with it.
What’s scary is the Pats aren’t likely to do that again. This was the type of performance that might have cost them against a stronger opponent, especially had it come on the road. But against a Texans team that won a bad division by default and only remained alive because it ran into a depleted, lifeless Oakland Raiders team last week, the Pats got a stinker out of their system.
There was plenty of room for error. There usually is when a team has won 15 of its last 18 home playoff games and is going up against a team with a quarterback as bad as Brock Osweiler, who, according to Pro Football Focus, completed zero of his five deep pass attempts on a three-interception night.
Not once in the last decade have the Patriots turned the ball over three-plus times in back-to-back games. This marked the first time Brady has thrown more than one interception since last January, and he’s thrown multiple picks in consecutive games only twice this decade.
This was a losing performance that resulted in a win, which is encouraging because Brady hasn’t lost back-to-back home games since 2006.
You’ll hear all week that the Patriots have to be better in order to beat the Kansas City Chiefs or Pittsburgh Steelers in next Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, and that’s probably true. Because again, this was sloppy.
Even the majority of New England’s big plays were sort of awkward. Per PFF, Brady completed a season-high six passes that traveled 20-plus yards, which is something only three other quarterbacks have done this year.
But the first one came when wide receiver Chris Hogan had to dive coming back to a ball that hung in the air far too long.
Another came when Hogan adjusted to catch a drifting deep ball thanks mainly to terrible coverage from safety Corey Moore, who might not have been there had regular starter Quintin Demps been healthy.
On another, receiver Julian Edelman clearly pushed off. He should have been called for offensive pass interference. And later, he had to make major adjustments again in order to catch a deep pass, with Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson looking completely lost in coverage.
The statistics indicate the Patriots resembled a home run hitter with a high strikeout rate, but the reality is most of those home runs were cheapies down the line in a hitter-friendly ballpark.
“Just very inconsistent for us all the way around,” Brady said afterward in his postgame press conference. “We just didn’t do enough in any area.”
Might this be exactly what the Patriots needed? Did they risk being lulled into a false sense of comfort with another dominant performance and another blowout victory? This team is used to January football, but Brady and Bill Belichick have lost three conference championship games since 2012. When they fell to the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos in 2012 and 2013, respectively, they were coming off double-digit divisional round victories.
And although this was also a double-digit win, it didn’t feel that way. And that’s what’s important. The Texans just might have scared the Patriots straight, reminding them they’re not infallible, despite the fact they’ve lost just one game with Brady under center this year.
The law of averages indicates a far-from-perfect game Saturday likely means the Patriots will be a lot closer to perfect next Sunday. The Texans weren’t good enough to play spoiler, but it’s possible they were just competent enough to do their opponent a favor.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.