FOXBORO -- It is possible for the Patriots to have played well and for the Texans to be worse than we thought? Those two things can coexist. It doesn't have to be one or the other.
That's the way it looked as it played out live. And that's the way it looked upon re-watching Monday.
The Texans offense was sloppy. They couldn't protect. They couldn't generate much through the air with anyone not named DeAndre Hopkins. And the Deshaun Watson regression, which was inevitable given his other-worldly fraction of a season in 2017, is underway.
Credit the Patriots, though, for starting fast defensively -- particularly up front. The infusion of talent along the defensive line has already produced results. Offensively, Tom Brady was very sharp after an interminable offseason that included him taking a very different springtime approach. For the most part -- even at his age, and with less time spent with the team leading up to the season -- he was the guy New England has come to know and expect.
In our first report card of 2018, we'll start with that 41-year-old.
Was it perfect? Nope. Brady's first throw of the game should've been a touchdown that sailed over Rex Burkhead's head. And he put together an ugly drive midway through the second quarter when he threw behind Chris Hogan incomplete, threw beyond the reach of James White incomplete, and threw into triple coverage to Hogan deep. He also was late and missed an out-route to James White. But otherwise, there were more shake-your-head pinpoint throws than slap-your-forehead inaccurate ones. His touchdown to Rob Gronkowski was exactly where it needed to be, and his throws to the big tight end down the seam were equally sharp. His throw to White at the end of the third quarter, while absorbing a hit, was vintage. And a near-dagger in the fourth quarter -- his scramble-drill pass to James Develin with Develin covered -- showed he still has plenty of mobility and arm strength to find openings in tight windows.
RUNNING BACK: C
The Patriots went heavy early and often -- no surprise given their depth at receiver -- and relied on this group to do a great deal. They worked out of their "pony" set with two pass-catching backs. They worked out of the I and offset I-formations with James Develin, whose 35 snaps played would've been his second-highest number all of last season. But the Texans and their talented front were ready. The Patriots averaged just under four yards per carry (122 yards on 31 attempts) and had trouble breaking any big ones (long of 12 yards). Jeremy Hill being out for the season
could end up being significant as he looked like the strongest runner on the day (four attempts for 25 yards and one catch for six). James White was a go-to option in the passing game (four catches on eight targets for 38 yards and an easy score), while Rex Burkhead did surprisingly little through the air (three targets, one catch). He also had a drop and a fumble. An issue here? Very few yards after contact. They averaged 2.22 yards after contact, per Pro Football Focus, which may improve against a lighter front. But it also may indicate they need another body to wear down defenses.
The bright spot here was Phillip Dorsett and the trust he's continued to develop with Brady. To hear Brady say after the game that Dorsett handled option routes well, that should go a long way. As should Dorsett catching all seven targets sent his way (including one that was probably actually intended for Hogan). Hard to give Dorsett a ton of credit on the two-minute drill when the Texans were inexplicably giving him the sideline -- Dorsett was as surprised as anyone that happened, he told me after the game -- but he executed and flashed dependable hands. Hogan couldn't seem to create much separation other than on one 11-yard comeback, though he was interfered with and drew a penalty down the seam in the third quarter. Cordarrelle Patterson was up and down on his end-around hand-offs (one went for 10, one went for zero, one went for three). He is what he is -- not a route-runner or a dependable part of the offense. Riley McCarron's muffed punt won't hurt this group's grade and will instead factor into the complicated mess on special teams.
TIGHT END: B+
Develin factors in here and helps give this grade -- mostly based off of Gronkowski's work -- a bit of a bump. Asked to be on the field more than usual, Develin was solid in the run game. He'd love to have the final offensive play of the game -- a Burkhead run blown up by Kareem Jackson -- back, but he helped extend that drive in the first place with a nice first-down catch on a Brady scramble drill. He also had a key block on Burkhead's 12-yard run late in the third quarter that was perfectly executed. Gronkowski, other than his lost fumble, was very good. Back shoulder touchdown, acrobatic seam grab through double-coverage . . . standard absurdity from him. Dwayne Allen was a non-factor in the passing game -- no surprise there -- but wasn't all that consistent in the run game, which is his bread and butter. He did well to block Jadeveon Clowney one-on-one on Burkhead's long run, but for having played 23 snaps he was otherwise very quiet.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B
Tough group to grade this week. When you're able to keep Clowney, J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus quiet for the better part of three quarters, you deserve something in the A-range for that effort. But things broke down late in the game as Brady was sacked twice and hit three more times late in the third and into the fourth quarter. Watt (one sack, two hits, one hurry) heated up while working on the combination of Marcus Cannon (being platooned as he gets accustomed to regular-season conditioning) and LaAdrian Waddle. He got Waddle for one sack. Then David Andrews and Shaq Mason didn't communicate well enough to stop a D.J. Reader sack in the fourth quarter. Mason was impressive as a puller -- he was one of the key blocks on Burkhead's 12-yarder -- but he allowed a hit by Reader late in the third. Trent Brown almost allowed one Burkhead run to be blown up by Watt -- Burkhead bounced off the hit to salvage three yards -- but was otherwise very good in pass protection. He was a huge reason for why Clowney had just one hurry all day, almost one year after coming to Gillette Stadium and dominating stretches of that game. They have a good one in Brown. He passed his first test.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-
Ryan Allen was among the few bright spots for this group Sunday. On six punts, only two were returned for a total of 18 yards, and two were plopped down inside the 10. He saved his best for last, dropping a wedge shot that landed at the one and was downed by Jonathan Jones. Stephen Gostkowski was also solid, making all three of his extra-point attempts, a 39-yard field goal and a 35-yarder. How the Patriots kick coverage unit handled Gostkowski's kickoffs, though, was a different story. Tyler Ervin returned five for 156 yards (31.2 average), and Ervin might've actually been able to rip off more yardage had he seen some of the holes the Patriots opened for him. Joe Judge's unit was also flagged for an illegal formation penalty at the end of the first half. Riley McCarron's muffed punt had the opportunity to swing the entire complexion of the game. He faced the music afterward, answering questions from reporters about how that happened, but one would think the Patriots have to go in a different direction in that role for Week 2. The only reason it might be up for any type of debate is they just don't have anyone else to do it. Patrick Chung has returned three punts in his career. Cordarrelle Patterson has returned one.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
What a difference an offseason makes. Remember when the Patriots had to rely upon Eric Lee, James Harrison and Ricky Jean Francois for 98 combined snaps in the Super Bowl? Feels like so long ago. Against the Texans, the Patriots didn't even need to dress 2017 third-rounder Derek Rivers and they still got an impressive pass-rush against a QB who's dangerous on the move. They had seven different linemen generate pressure. Trey Flowers was dominant for stretches (in on two sacks, three hits, four hurries), Deatrich Wise was in on a pair of sacks of his own, Lawrence Guy made his presence felt with a hit that led to Stephon Gilmore's pick, Adrian Clayborn buzzed the tower three different times to help force the ball out quickly, and Keionta Davis recorded a hit in his first game as a pro. There was a brutal stretch in the third quarter where Adam Butler and/or Danny Shelton couldn't hold their ground properly in the run game on multiple snaps, helping lead to a sustained drive powered by runs that finished with an eventual Alfred Blue touchdown. The run defense allowed 4.9 yards per carry on the day, which will require some cleaning up -- especially since this was one of the worst offensive lines the Patriots will see in 2018. But for the most part, this was a clean and impressive performance from a vastly improved group.
The first play of the game was a gift. But give Dont'a Hightower credit for blowing up Seantrel Henderson and being in the right place at the right time to help set up the offense for its first scoring drive of the year. Hightower had a pressure later in the first quarter that helped force an errant throw. You expect those types of things from him. Ja'Whaun Bentley, though, was the more surprising force. He led all front-seven players with 51 snaps, had a tackle for a loss, a quarterback hit and seven tackles total. He was on the field in all situations -- including on kick return and on the punt team -- and looks like much more of an all-around talent than he was given credit for coming out of Purdue. Remember, NFL teams used him almost strictly at the line of scrimmage at the Senior Bowl because they assumed he wasn't athletic enough to play off the line in today's game. Think they'd like to have that assessment back? The 'backers, Bentley included, weren't perfect in coverage -- Elandon Roberts was beaten on a mismatch with receiver Bruce Ellington in the third quarter -- and their run fits were shoddy at times. Roberts and Van Noy looked a little out of sorts at points in the third; Van Noy and Patrick Chung couldn't seem to figure out their goal-line fits on a hurry-up snap that resulted in Blue's score. Van Noy did have a key tackle for a loss to start the second half, which eventually helped force a punt, meaning the linebackers were in on two key plays to start each half. Tone-setters, you could say.
If not for a couple of Gilmore penalties in the game's final moments, and a defenseless receiver penalty called on Duron Harmon, this might've been in the "A-" range. Now is that mostly because Watson couldn't threaten the Patriots deep down the field and truly challenge Patriots defensive backs? Partly. But they were challenged by defensive play-caller Brian Flores to play a great deal of man coverage against a mobile quarterback -- never an easy task -- and answered the bell. Gilmore was tight to Hopkins for much of the afternoon between the 20s, and he used his help well in the red zone to take Hopkins away. His pick deep down the field (on an inexplicable throw by Watson) was impressive out of Cover-3, and he broke up another pass intended for Hopkins that was in the receiver's grasp for a moment before Gilmore punched it loose. He wanted Hopkins, he got him, and he turned in a good day until the very end. Jonathan Jones broke up a pair of passes and looked good in his first 37 snaps since ending last year injured. Eric Rowe was also solid despite colliding with Bentley at the goal line to give up a late score. Houston just didn't have anyone who could challenge him. Patrick Chung was beaten by Jordan Thomas for 27 yards at one point, but he held Ryan Griffin catchless on three targets. Devin McCourty was also solid, chasing down a Hopkins end-around when Hopkins bailed, reversed field, and got nowhere. Impressive hustle from one of the most dependable players on one of the most dependable groups on the roster.