By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Houston Texans are awful.
Despite that reality, they were in position to win a football game against the New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon. Thanks to poor ball security at the goal line, an ill-advised interception by a rookie QB, and numerous defensive breakdowns by New England, the Texans against all odds led the Patriots 22-9 just 81 seconds into the second half.
All Houston had to do there was play decently — or even only a little bit bad — for the final 28 minutes to come out with their second victory of the year and their first victory against an opponent that has actually won a game this season.
Alas, the Texans are the Texans. And so, they Texansed.
It began, really, when the Texans’ coaching staff decided that being up 22-9 in the third quarter was a good time to play games with the punt team. On a fourth-and-2 at the Houston 36-yard line, punter Cameron Johnston ran up toward the line of scrimmage in a shotgun position, as if Houston was going to run a fake punt. But Houston was not going to run a fake punt. This was a fake fake.
Johnston retreated back to his normal spot, though he didn’t quite get all the way back to his normal depth. Because when he finally received the long snap, he … kicked the football off the head of his teammate.
— Mark Berman (@MarkBermanFox26) October 10, 2021
Nobody quite knew what had happened in the moment, but everybody saw the ball head out of bounds directly at the line of scrimmage. Replay showed how comical that kick was:
The Texans just achieved a ZERO-YARD PUNT pic.twitter.com/brF7WgUv4w
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 10, 2021
It went down, officially, as a zero-yard punt. It wasn’t on the unparalleled level of the Colts’ fake punt against the Patriots from 2015. But short of that unreachable mark, this was as bad a special teams gaffe as a team can commit.
The Patriots turned the gifted field position into a field goal drive to cut Houston’s lead to 10 points.
The fact that there was absolutely no reason for the Texans to mess around in this situation only makes it more baffling.
Unfortunately for the Texans, head coach David Culley wasn’t exceptionally sharp when it came to deciding what to do on fourth down on this day.
Actually, when the Texans tried to convert fourth downs, they were successful; Houston was 3-for-3 on fourth-down attempts. It’s only when they didn’t go for it that problems arose.
The next instance of that goofery came 91 seconds into the fourth quarter. The Texans were still up by seven points, but they really wanted to extend that lead. Or did they?
Culley couldn’t decide.
After Davis Mills’ pass to Brandin Cooks on third-and-7 only went for three yards, Culley wasn’t sure what to do. Facing a fourth-and-4 from the Patriots’ 38-yard line, Culley couldn’t decide to kick a field goal or go for it (or, perhaps, run a fake-fake-punt again.)
So Culley burned a timeout. During that break, he decided a 56-yard field goal for Kaʻimi Fairbairn was the right choice.
Never mind that Fairbairn had already missed two PATs and had sent a kickoff out of bounds in the game. Never mind that Fairbairn’s career long field goal is 55 yards. Disregard those two facts, because Culley decided — after some extra time to think it over — that Sunday would be the day for Fairbairn to kick the longest field goal of his career.
You’ll never believe this, but the kick was no good. It was never close.
It was a terrible kick.
— Ben Brown (@BenBrownPL) October 10, 2021
And that poor decision by Culley gave the ball to the Patriots at their own 46-yard line. The Patriots capitalized with a 54-yard touchdown drive to tie the game.
In a game where the Texans were gifted two turnovers by the New England offense, Houston was all too eager to give back most of that advantage on — of all things — special teams.
The third and final second-half gaffe that sunk the Texans was more of a garden-variety mistake, as Maliek Collins got a little over-eager while delivering a hit on Mac Jones while the rookie was throwing a pass. That pass was nearly intercepted, but it was dropped by the Houston defensive back in coverage against N’Keal Harry.
But that didn’t matter, because Collins delivered a hit with his helmet directly to the face mask of Jones. It was a clear-cut, obvious case of roughing the passer … and it came on a third-and-18!
— Mike Giardi (@MikeGiardi) October 10, 2021
Instead of having to punt with 5:11 left in a tied game, the Patriots had a fresh set of downs at their own 44-yard line. Jones then completed a 10-yard pass on third-and-6, before Brandon Bolden broke off a 24-yard run to get the ball into the red zone.
From there, with some help from Culley having burned a timeout before that ill-advised field goal call, the Patriots were able to drain the clock all the way down to 17 seconds before sending Nick Folk onto the field to kick his 21-yard chip shot to win the game.
When the Texans got the ball with their chance to tie the game, they had 15 seconds and no timeouts. They … came up short.
Obviously, the Patriots cleaned up their game tremendously in the second half, and for that, they got the win and the deserve credit for that much.
But the Texans just had to not screw it up, and they’d have themselves their first (and potentially only) real win of the season. Instead, they fell face-first into their own vat of chili, right in front of the whole office.
It’s going to take a long time to clean up that mess.