Defined by complementary play, Patriots look ahead to Texans

Jackson: Patriots more fundamentally sound than anyone in the NFL (1:11)

Tom Jackson applauds the Patriots for their ability to prepare for any team in any condition after the Patriots defeat the Cowboys 13-9 in the pouring rain. (1:11)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots are coming off a victory that highlighted a key tenet of Bill Belichick's program -- exemplary complementary football -- and now prepare to face a Bill O'Brien-led Houston Texans team that has a similar philosophy.

The connection is obvious, as O'Brien was a Patriots assistant under Belichick from 2007 through 2011. So O'Brien will hardly be surprised when he fires up tape from the Patriots' 13-9 win against the Dallas Cowboys and sees three units -- offense, defense, special teams -- melded together to force the opposition to account for all weaknesses.

"It's not the strength of the individual players; it's the strength of how they function together," Belichick is quoted as saying in Michael Lombardi's book, "Gridiron Genius."

Chapter 4 of that book focuses entirely on Belichick's appreciation for special teams as a way to build toughness and an "all-in vibe up and down the roster." Never was that more apparent than in Sunday's rain-soaked, wind-whipped game against the Cowboys when ...

  • Matthew Slater, who was selected in the fifth round of the 2008 draft solely as a special-teams player, had the play of the game with a blocked punt on an impressive individual effort to set up the game's only touchdown. When the offense is struggling, the burden is lessened when only having to "drive" 12 yards for a score.

  • Early in the second quarter, the Patriots strategically replaced top kickoff man Jake Bailey with veteran Nick Folk, so Folk could execute a short pop-up kick that the Cowboys inexplicably allowed to bounce on the ground and nearly lost. It was a clear-cut example of the Patriots putting pressure on the opposition through the kicking game.

  • Running back Brandon Bolden, one of a handful of players who are on the team because of their core role on special teams, delivered a thunderous pancake block on the opening kickoff return of the third quarter. A tone-setter, indeed.

  • Seven-year veteran running back Rex Burkhead, who prior to Sunday had never fielded a punt in his NFL career but first took repetitions in 2018 training camp for emergency purposes, delivered what Belichick later referred to as a critical fair catch late in the third quarter. In a field-position game, Burkhead's judgment and sure hands helped create favorable field position to set up the Patriots' final field goal.

They are little things, but when added up can make a big difference.

Patriots special teams were far from perfect Sunday, but it was a decisive fourth-down advantage that had Cowboys owner Jerry Jones lamenting his team's deficiencies in that area. Jones said it was a reflection on coaching, but as Lombardi noted in his weekly piece on The Athletic, it was as much about culture and what each organization prioritizes.

Fast-forward to Sunday's game between the Patriots and Texans at NRG Stadium in Houston (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), and New England will see plenty of similarities across the line of scrimmage. For one, their former special-teams coach, Brad Seely, is now in his second season on O'Brien's staff.

Romeo Crennel, who was the Patriots defensive coordinator in their first three Super Bowl championship seasons, leads Houston's defense. And O'Brien calls the plays on offense.

So just as a key tenet of the Patriots program is to play complementary football, the Texans have coaches who share the same approach from having executed it well under Belichick.

Thus, it has potential to be an intriguing, across-the-board chess match between like-minded coaches.

As Belichick said on Friday's "NFL 100" program about his own coaching philosophy: "You can go all the way back to a few hundred years BC, Sun Tzu, 'The Art of War.' Attack weaknesses. Utilize strengths. Figure out what the strengths are on your team. There's some things you have to protect. Find the weaknesses of your opponent. And attack."

In all three phases of the game.