The bad news: The Patriots, expecting an easier time of things after their skin-of-the-teeth win over the Broncos last Sunday night, found themselves in a toe-to-toe another slugfest -- against a 2-9 opponent, no less -- Sunday in Houston.
The good news: They had Tom Brady on their side.
Brady directed the 40th fourth-quarter comeback of his career by leading the Pats to 27 second-half points, enabling them to erase a 17-7 halftime deficit and post a 34-31 victory over the Texans at Reliant Stadium. Stephen Gostkowski provided the game-winning points with a pair of 53-yard field goals, the first with 7:12 to play and the second exactly four minutes later, to enable New England to improve its record to 9-3 and remain the No. 2 seed in the AFC, one game behind Denver (10-2).
"I wish," said Brady, "we could start fast and put the foot on the gas pedal the whole way."
Gostkowski may have been the triggerman, but Brady -- 29-of-41, 371 yards, 2 touchdowns -- was the architect. The Patriots scored on their first five possessions of the second half and did exactly what they wanted to do on the sixth: Eat up enough time with the clock winding down to prevent the Texans from having a chance to tie or win the game.
The comeback began on the Pats' first possession of the second half, with Brady driving the team 78 yards in 5 plays (big play: 50-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski, which put the ball on the Houston 13) for the touchdown that cut the Texans' lead to 17-14. James Develin scored it, bulling his way in from a yard out.
The defense -- in one of its few bright moments in the first 23 minutes of the second half -- forced a three-and-out and Brady went back to work. He marched the Pats 73 yards in 7 plays (big play: 25-yard completion to Julian Edelman, which put the ball on the Texans 19) for the touchdown that put New England ahead, 21-17. Shane Vereen scored it, on a nine-yard pass from Brady.
But the storyline everyone thought was unfolding -- Pats take command and pull away -- didn't materialize. Houston had taken advantage of good field position throughout the first half, but now the Texans put together their first decent drive of the day: 81 yards in 10 plays, with quarterback Case Keenum running in from five yards out to put Houston back in front, 24-21.
Brady completed 10-of-11 passes for 176 yards in the third quarter, and picked up right where he left off in the fourth. The Patriots gained double-digit yardage on five of their first six plays of their next drive, eventually reaching the Texans 15. On a third-and-eight, Brady completed an eight-yard slant over the middle to Edelman for a first down, and LeGarrette Blount ran it in from there to give New England a 28-24 lead.
The lead lasted exactly three plays: A 66-yard pass from Keenum to DeAndre Hopkins in which Kyle Arrington was utterly torched; a four-yard run by Ben Tate, and a 10-yard run by Tate for his third touchdown of the game. The extra point made the score 31-28, Houston.
It was to be the Texans' last gasp offensively. The Pats' defense finally tightened, holding Houston to 23 yards over its last 11 offensive plays stretched over three series. And Brady did what he had to do to deliver the win.
On the first possession after Tate's third touchdown, he drove the Pats from their own 25 to the Texans' 35, where Gostkowski tied the game with the first of his back-to-back 53-yarders. After a Houston three-and-out, Brady moved the Pats from their 33 to the Houston 35, and Gostkowski drilled the game-winner with 3:12 to play.
It erased a multitude of first-half sins that resulted in a 17-7 halftime deficit.
"Whatever we're doing is not good enough," said Brady, "and we can't keep getting behind because you have to play too well in the second half to overcome."
Tate, who rushed for 102 yards on 22 carries, scored on runs of 8 and 20 yards, offsetting a 23-yard TD pass from Brady to Gronkowski, and Randy Bullock added a 43-yard field goal for Houston.
"It's not the way we want to play," said Bill Belichick. "Hopefully . . . [we can] find a way to get ahead."
But falling behind isn't necessarily fatal. Not with Tom Brady around.