It has been more than seven months since fans of the New England Patriots were forced to watch their team suffer a 41-33 defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII.
On Sunday, the Pats took to the gridiron to welcome the Houston Texans to Foxboro, Massachusetts for their first meaningful action since that fateful night in February.
Tom Brady threw for 277 yards and three touchdowns, hitting Rob Gronkowski for 123 yards and a score Sunday to lead the defending AFC champion Patriots to a 27-20 victory over the Texans.
Despite some futile attempts to suggest otherwise, Brady and Gronkowski showed no signs of rust or ill-effects from being absent from OTAs earlier this year. The prolific pair connected seven times, including a 21-yard touchdown pass for the Pats first trip to the end zone for the 2018 season.
The reigning NFL MVP completed 26 of 39 passes, with one interception on a pass that was tipped at the line of scrimmage. However, in true Brady fashion, he wasn’t satisfied with how he performed, despite a solid stat line.
“I don’t think we played anywhere near where our capabilities are,” he said. “All of us probably look at the game and realize we could have done things better.”
Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson completed 17 of 35 passes for 176 yards, one score and one interception. He struggled to move the team in the first 40 minutes, managing just a pair of field-goal drives. The Texans found some resurgence when Alfred Blue ran in a one yard touchdown to make it 24-13 in the last two minutes of the third period.
A muffed punt by New England’s Riley McCarron (with under five minutes left) set up Watson’s 5-yard TD pass to Bruce Ellington. Albeit late in the game, the Texans had cut the deficit to 27-20.
The Pats failed to secure a first down with time running down and were forced to punt the ball back to the Texans with 51 seconds remaining. Punter Ryan Allen booted a 54-yard gem and pinned the Texans to their own one-yard line. With 43 seconds left, the Texans failed to reach midfield. Watson’s game-ending ‘hail-mary’ heave fell incomplete and the Pats had secured the win in the season-opener.
While Brady and Gronkowski certainly posted impressive stat lines, Phillip Dorsett and James White found the end zone, as well. Dorsett caught seven passes for 66 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown pass in the closing seconds of the first half to make it 21-6. White had four receptions for 38 yards, including a 12-yard score.
For the Texans, Lamar Miller ran 20 times for 98 yards. Watson, who threw for 301 yards in a 36-33 loss to New England last year, botched a handoff with Miller in the first quarter. This would set up the Patriots for their first touchdown. In the second quarter, Watson inexplicably chucked the ball into the end zone for a double-covered Vyncint Smith on a second-and-3 from the New England 42. Stephon Gilmore brought it down for the interception.
PROTECTING THE BALL
While the Patriots should take solace in a solid win, they did have some trouble with turnovers.
Brady had an interception in the first quarter on a throw tipped by Houston DL Angelo Blackson and brought in by cornerback Tyrann Mathieu at the Patriots 17 yard-line. The Texans went backward 7 yards before Ka’imi Fairbairn’s 42-yard field-goal.
Gronkowski also fumbled in the third quarter after a 25-yard reception across the middle, also recovered by Mathieu. However, after advancing to the New England 17, the Texans gave the ball back on downs.
Lastly, McCarron’s muffed punt provided the Texans with a chance to tie the game in a score-and-recover situation late in the fourth quarter. While it’s noteworthy to point out that it is game one of a sixteen game season, turnovers can be costly. The Pats were fortunate that they did not result in a greater amount of Texan points. One can bet that head coach Bill Belichick and his staff will be hard at work this week, looking to improve upon this showing.
In the midst of the Gronkowski fumble, Patriots running back Jeremy Hill left with a right knee injury in the third quarter. Upon being helped off the field by his trainer, Hill was examined in he blue medical tent on the sidelines, and quickly deemed ineligible for the remainder of the game. His status is expected to be revealed within the coming days.
It was the 27th regular-season 100-yard game of Gronkowski’s career, second most for a tight end in NFL history; Tony Gonzalez had 31. But Gronkowski also had four in the postseason, and Gonzalez had none.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick earned his 251st regular-season win, passing Tom Landry for third on the NFL’s all-time list.
The Patriots visit Jacksonville to take on the Jaguars on Sunday,September 16, in a rematch of the Jan. 21 AFC championship game. New England won 24-20 to reach the Super Bowl for the third time in four years.
-Mike D’Abate is a Managing Editor and National Columnist for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the NFL and the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @mdabateFPC