FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots had one of their most tumultuous offseasons of their 18-year dynasty, but none of that seemed to matter Sunday. Despite losing key contributors to free agency and apparent rumblings of cracks in the foundation — the Patriots looked just like their typical selves in their 27-20 win over the Houston Texans.
Meanwhile, the game represented the official returns of Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson and defensive end J.J. Watt. Despite struggling on offense for much of the first half, and in spots during the second half, Houston managed to compete with the Super Bowl runner-ups.
Here’s what we learned Sunday at Gillette Stadium:
• The Patriots have had a tough time shoring up their wide receiving unit. This offseason and preseason saw the following comings and goings: Brandin Cooks was traded, Danny Amendola signed with Dolphins, Julian Edelman was suspended, Jordan Matthews and Kenny Britt were cut and Eric Decker retired. Until the trusty Edelman returns in October, Tom Brady is left to rely on the likes of Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and Cordelle Patterson. But as Sunday’s season opener reflected, that’s not a problem.
Brady spread the ball around to nine different pass-catchers while completing 26 of 39 passes for 277 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Dorsett led the wide receivers with seven catches for 66 yards and a touchdown. And while Brady might not have an elite option at the position, but he does have the most imposing tight end in the game: Rob Gronkowski, who had seven catches for 123 yards and a touchdown. And New England’s offense is so diverse that running backs James White, fullback James Develin and Rex Burkhead also are featured often in the passing game. It all boils down to one thing: The Patriots have Brady, and thus they always have a chance. Jacksonville defensive back Jalen Ramsey has spent much of his media availability ripping everyone in the league, but not Brady. He said the Patriots quarterback could make him an all-pro wide receiver. Maybe he’s right.
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• Watson is healthy, which is the good and most important thing for the Texans. But his Texans coaches must be careful to avoid overestimating his capabilities and put too much on him right now. They need to do what they can to better protect the second-year pro. He took far too many hits and found himself under pressure far too often Sunday against New England.
Bill O’Brien seemed to get it late in the second quarter and then in the second half. His Texans were at their best with a healthy dose of the run and the same read-option concepts that they used to make Watson comfortable as a rookie. Because Houston’s offensive line is still a work in progress (the new additions have yet to fully gel), and with Watson is still a bit rusty, a steady prescription of a traditional drop-back passing attack is not yet the way to go. However, pounding the football with Lamar Miller, quick hitters, misdirection … these are the best options now.
Watson made some nice throws and led his receivers well at times. But there were times when he held onto the ball too long or couldn’t hit his targets in stride. These kinks will work their way out as he gets more playing time. But it’s well-documented that a young quarterback’s best friend is a healthy run game. Balance is key.
• Tyrann Mathieu was excited to prove to the league that he remains the Honey Badger – the versatile, impact defensive back that took the league by storm in Arizona. Mathieu wasted little time making his presence felt for the Texans. He recorded an interception, recovered a fumble and also recorded five tackles. Mathieu’s play-making ability should only increase as Watt and Jadeveon Clowney round back into top form.
Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
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