At least we didn’t have to wait to see how much “the peripherals” mattered when it came to determining what kind of offseason hangover remained. Just 190 seconds into the 2018 season, Tom Brady threw a 21-yard laser to Rob Gronkowski who plucked the pass, eluded two defenders and got in over the pylon to make it 7-0. At that point and by game’s end it was abundantly clear that the two best players on the field were the two guys who went their own way all spring and most of the summer. So call it refutation. Welcome refutation. The Texans are who they’ve always been and not what I thought they were. And the Patriots are -- most likely -- the same as they ever were. Especially for the 60 minutes of football they play each week.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAD THE BALL
If a team can’t figure out a way to devote one player at all times to dealing with Rob Gronkowski, then it deserves what it gets. And Houston got Gronked but good as Brady threw to him eight times and found him seven for 123 yards and that game-opening touchdown. Time and again down the seam the Texans gave Gronk too much room. Or maybe they just thought that Brady wouldn’t throw it to him when they had him semi-covered. Gronk thought the same. Of his diving catch late in the first half, Gronk said, “I was running up the seam I had two guys on me and when I saw the ball in the air I literally thought first thing, “What is Tom [Brady] thinking?” When that ball was in the air I had a guy grabbing me and I was just like, “I’ve just got to go for it.” I can’t let them make a play on it, so just went up for it, made the catch. I did make the catch. I don’t know how. When I went to the ground I had it stable in my hand, so it was definitely a catch, but Tom went up to the line really quick just to make sure.” Brady finished 26 for 39 for 277 with three TDs and a pick off a tipped pass. He got great protection for about 70 percent of the game before things got hairy later on. Still, the Patriots turned away the Texans athletic front-seven in impressive fashion and Brady did a good job getting more from Phillip Dorsett (7 targets, 7 catches, 66 yards) than anyone really has. Tough blow losing Jeremy Hill, whose running style fit perfectly. Rex Burkhead did the heavy lifting (18 carries for 64 yards) and James Develin wound up with four catches for 22 yards, the final one being an important 10-yard pickup. The Patriots worked to get Cordarelle Patterson some touches in space. He didn’t make much happen but there was enough there to keep working that angle.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAD THE BALL
The Patriots defense held the Texans to 2 for 11 on third down. The rush and coverage were synced up nicely in the first half especially when they held Houston to 141 yards of offense and harassed Watson into a 5 for 13 start with a pick. Watson was bothered in the pocket and the Patriots got to him for three sacks and forced several inaccurate throws on the move. A lot of credit goes to pass rush discipline on the edges and what appeared to be a more aggressive effort to disrupt Watson as opposed to living in fear of the scramble. Even though the last 10 minutes weren’t great, the secondary did a very good job most of the game disrupting receivers as the ball arrived. DeAndre Hopkins was targeted 11 times, caught eight and finished with 78 yards receiving, less than what you’d expect from him with eight catches. Ja’Whaun Bentley, Deatrich Wise, Lawrence Guy, Dont’a Hightower, Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Noy and Adrian Clayborn were a big part of the success up front.
THE KICKING GAME
The Patriots put Riley McCarron back to field punts. He fair caught one at the Patriots 6. Not ideal. He muffed another one in the fourth to set up a Texans touchdown that closed the lead to seven. Even less ideal. Punter Ryan Allen bailed the Pats out with a terrific punt late that was downed at the Texans 1 by Jonathan Jones. Allen had a very good day. The Patriots kick coverage wasn’t terrific. Tyler Ervin averaged 31.2 yards on his returns. Stephen Gostkowski was good from 35 and 39.
PATRIOTS MEDICAL REPORT
Jeremy Hill suffered a knee injury. Worst case, it’s an ACL. Best case it’s an MCL.
TEXANS MEDICAL REPORT
Kevin Johnson and Seantrel Henderson were forced from the game for the Texans.
TEXANS HAD TO STOP...
James White. White is the Patriots best threat when it comes to creating short-area separation in the passing game. Without potent threats on the perimeter and attention being paid to Gronk, White should get some 1-on-1s he can feast on.
AND WHAT HAPPENED...
I figured the Texans would devote two guys to erasing Gronk and that would leave a lot on White to make people miss in open space. The Texans were awful on Gronk. White hurt them as well with four catches for 38 yards and a 12-yard touchdown.
PATRIOTS HAD TO STOP...
Deshaun Watson. The pass rush just can’t get overly rambunctious and leave creases for Watson to wander into and buy time to set his feet and survey. As improved as the New England defense is, they still don’t have great coverage at the linebacker level and Watson could feast on those restarts.
AND WHAT HAPPENED...
A combination of patience, discipline and aggressiveness. That’s how Deatrich Wise described the Patriots approach to dealing with the Texans quarterback. Watson ran eight times for 40 yards and went 17 for 34 for 16 yards with a TD pass and a pick.
THAT SUMS IT UP PATRIOTS STYLE
“Guys that are big, fast, athletic, can throw the ball all over the field, there's only a couple of them in the league and so to have them on your team would be unusual. You just do the best you can on that and try to give the defense the best look as you can at what they do. Sometimes that might be putting a receiver or somebody like that at quarterback … if you've got guys that are unique players that have special skills then you can't replicate them. Neither can anybody else except for the team that has that guy. You just try to do the best you can and take what you have and try to simulate it.” – Bill Belichick on the difficulty of preparing for Deshaun Watson.
A-plus job of preparing for Watson this week. Maybe he isn’t where he will be later in the season as he comes back from that ACL but the Patriots did a very good job hemming him in and forcing less than accurate throws.
THAT SUMS IT UP TEXANS STYLE
“People talk about the later parts of his career. I don’t really see where his – you know, I don’t know when his career’s going to be over because he’s playing at a – I mean, he was the MVP last year, you know what I mean? So, like when is his – I don’t even know what the definition of latter part of this guy’s career would be. He’s the MVP of the league last year.” – Texans coach Bill O’Brien, flummoxed by a question about Tom Brady in the autumn of his career.
One of the biggest plays in the game was Brady finding James Develin for 10 yards on a second-and-8 play after the two-minute warning. Brady bought time, wandered around, scrambled and then threw a dart on the run to Develin for a first down that forced the Texans to burn all their timeouts.
THE CREW AND THE LINE
Tony Corrente and the boys were the crew in town for this one. I always confuse Pete Morelli and Tony Corrente so this isn’t as bad as I initially thought. Pete Morelli could screw up a walk to the mailbox. The Patriots were favored by 6.5 and the total was 50.
Patriots cover and this is an under. Meanwhile, Tony’s crew … a gentleman’s C. They should have done a booth review on Gronk’s catch late in the first half. They appeared to severely bungle one of the two holds on Stephon Gilmore in the fourth quarter … there were some egregious offensive holds going on that appeared to draw flags but got lost in the flood. Also, the helmet clash that drove Texans corner Kevin Johnson from the game was an instance where both players lowered and hit with the crown and neither could be described as “bracing.” I’m sure there were other mistakes. The penalties were even, six each.