By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — In Baltimore, trailing 17-0 early, it was a tough spot. In windy and chilly Philly, it wasn’t easy. In an unrelenting downpour against Dallas, life was difficult.

As the Patriots’ offense stumbled through the third quarter of this 2019 season, it was slightly alarming. Still, some of the struggle could easily be explained.

That was, until Sunday night in Houston. In perfect conditions, against a mostly terrible defense, with essentially a full complement of players, the opportunity was there for Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels to get back to being Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels.

Instead, after mounting an impressive opening drive, the offense stalled at the 5-yard line and settled for a field goal. After that, the Patriots’ possessions in the first half ended thusly:

–Gained 6 yards, Interception
–Gained 20 yards, Punt
–Gained 26 yards, Punt
–Gained 30 Yards, Punt

Then the second half began. Here’s what the Patriots did to start the third quarter:

–Lost 1 yard, Punt
–Gained 51 yards, Turnover On Downs

At that point, the Texans led 21-3, and despite an offensive awakening of sorts in the fourth quarter, there was simply no coming back for the Patriots on this night.

Statistically, it looked like an offensive bonanza for Brady and Co. As a team, they gained 448 yards of offense, their second-highest total of the season and their most since Week 1. They ran for 145 yards, which was a season high, and they put up 22 points, their most as an offense since Week 7 at the Jets. Individually, Brady had one of his best games of the season, throwing for 326 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.

Yet aside from some fantasy owners who cashed in with some late points, those stats essentially mean nothing. Anybody who watched the Patriots’ offense stumble through the game when it actually mattered knows that the Patriots’ problems can no longer be written off or explained away. They are very, very real.

Remember, heading into this game, the Texans’ defense ranked 25th in the NFL in passing yards allowed. They had the second-worst third-down defense and an equally bad red zone defense, and they carried interception rates and sack rates that ranked among the NFL’s very worst defenses. By almost every statistical measure, the Texans were and are one of the five worst defenses in the NFL.

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Through the first 40 or so minutes of Sunday night’s game, you would’ve never known. Bradley Roby picked off a Tom Brady pass late in the first quarter, leading directly to seven points for the home team.

On their next possession, Brady scrambled for 13 yards to convert one third down, but he threw incomplete on the next third down. On their next possession, after moving the sticks twice, the Patriots failed to pick up a Roby blitz up the middle. The defensive back easily sacked Brady to force another Patriots punt.

The Patriots were moving the ball on their final possession of the first half, before hitting a wall at the Houston 39-yard line. With a first-and-10 from the 39 with 41 seconds left in the half, and with one timeout in their back pocket, Brady threw incomplete on three straight plays. Instead of even getting a long field goal attempt, the Patriots had to punt.

It was that kind of night.

“Just execution. Just got to do a better job,” a boilerplate Brady said after the game. “Tough to get behind and come back. Just put ourselves in a pretty deep hole, and you can’t do that on the road.”

Later, Brady was a bit more blunt.

“If don’t play good, you don’t win,” he said. “We didn’t deserve it.”

That much is indisputable. The question now is whether or not the Patriots’ offense can pull a repeat of last season, develop a late-season identity, and ride it all the way to a Super Bowl.

If one were to try to answer that question at this moment, the answer would be a resounding no. To be fair, though, if one were to have been asked that same question last year after a grisly loss in Pittsburgh in which they scored just 10 points to drop to 9-5, just days before losing one of their best receivers to a suspension? The answer, likewise, would have been no.

That is now the challenge for McDaniels. For as much as there will be made about the personnel and the lack of experienced, dangerous pass-catching options for Brady, the reality is that the game plans have not been up to par for some time now. That is to say, what McDaniels thought would work to start games has simply been proven ineffective, going back several weeks.

Patriots’ First Half Drives (kneeldowns excluded)

–At Houston: 5 drives, 151 yards, 3 points
–Vs. Dallas: 6 drives, 153 yards, 10 points (two missed field goals)
–At Philadelphia: 5 drives, 133 yards, 9 points
–At Baltimore: 7 drives, 171 yards, 13 points
–Vs. Cleveland: 6 drives, 170 yards, 10 points (plus defensive TD)

Playing with a lead has been a hallmark of the Patriots’ run of unprecedented success. They haven’t had that luxury for the past five weeks, a stretch that accounts for about one-third of the season.

On Sunday night, it was particularly perplexing why the Patriots abandoned the run so quickly. On their first drive, Sony Michel gained 31 yards on  five carries, bursting through the gut of the Houston defense for 17 yards to get the ball to the Houston 7-yard line. The first play call from inside the 10 was another handoff to Michel, this one for two yards, before the play-calling got … strange.

The second-down play called for Brady to roll to his right, limiting his options to half the field. He threw incomplete to a well-covered Jakobi Meyers. On third down from the 5-yard line, Brady took a shotgun snap, scanned his options, and failed to drop a perfect pass over the linebacker’s head and into the arms of Phillip Dorsett under the goal posts.

After moving the ball 69 yards and getting 38 of those yards from the ground game, McDaniels didn’t feel confident that the offense could power the ball into the end zone from five yards out. Later, when facing a fourth-and-1 on the Houston 42, McDaniels dialed up a pass play instead of a run. It was unsuccessful.

Similarly, after Michel gained 33 yards on six carries on the opening drive, the running back only got four more carries for the rest of the night.

The Patriots’ second drive went incomplete pass, short completion, interception. The third drive saw Brady hand the ball off just once, leading to a punt. They ran with James White a bit on their next drive without success, and Brady took a third-down sack, leading to another punt.

The sequence brought to mind a comment from McDaniels in the “Do Your Job” special that aired in September, when the offensive coordinator shared a message that Bill Belichick delivered last year after the loss in Pittsburgh.

“[Belichick said], ‘If you keep holding on to what you’d rather be — no-huddle, spread formations, 34 points a game — then you’re probably going to end up regretting a lot of things at the end of the year,'” McDaniels shared in the NFL Films special. “‘What are we really good at? What’s the most consistent part of our team offensively?’ And then you commit to it.”

To this point, it’s been impossible for the Patriots to know exactly how their offense should and can function at its best. N’Keal Harry has been involved for just three games. Josh Gordon was in, then out. Antonio Brown, too. Without Isaiah Wynn for half of a season, the run game was in shambles. Ted Karras was reaching a certain comfort level as David Andrews’ replacement, but he suffered a knee injury on Sunday night, leaving the Patriots with their third-string center in the middle of their line. Both James Develin and then Jakob Johnson suffered season-ending injuries, thus forcing the offense to change significantly. Tight end production — both as pass catchers and run blockers — has been inconsistent at best. Finding a consistent and reliable role has proven difficult for the likes of Meyers, Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett.

Taken together, it leaves the Patriots with some rather difficult questions: What are they really good at? What’s the most consistent part of their team offensively?

Last year, McDaniels and Brady found their answer. This year, with just four weeks left to figure it out, it’s time to figure it out once more.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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