By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Football fans in New England may not take too seriously the football team known as the Houston Texans. That’s not without reason.
Ever since the franchise was established in 2002, the Texans have served as a bit of a punching bag for the New England Patriots. The two teams have met head-to-head 10 times. The Patriots have won nine of those games. Two of them came in the postseason. The Patriots have won seven straight vs. Houston, dating back to the infamous “Varsity Jacket Game.” New England has outscored Houston by an average of 16 points in those seven games, and that includes a 27-0 Patriots victory when Jacoby Brissett made a start at quarterback in Week 3 of his rookie season.
Bob McNair may be listed as the Texans’ owner, but for the better part of two decades, the Patriots can lay equal claim.
Alas, things do change, and with regard to sentiments toward the football team from Houston, it’s time to properly set expectations.
In just a few short days, the Texans will be visiting Gillette Stadium to open the 2018 season. While every season has its own set of unknowns prior to kickoff, this year figures to be a rather unique one for the Patriots. There was, of course, the offseason of melodrama involving the quarterback, the head coach and the owner (with some contribution from the all-world tight end, too). That matter has seemingly cooled down, but several questions nevertheless remain about the potency of this year’s Patriots team. Specifically, the lack of impact players on the depth chart at receiver figures to be a potentially fatal flaw.
But pushing aside whatever questions may or may not exist about the 2018 Patriots, for the purposes of this week, there’s enough reason to believe the Texans will enter Gillette Stadium as a dangerous team — one fully capable of starting the year with an upset victory over Bill Belichick and Co.
Here are but a few reasons why.
Deshaun Watson Almost Did It Last Year
Somewhat lost in the fog of the Super Bowl loss are the details of the 2017 regular season for the Patriots. And early in that season, on an unseasonably hot day in Foxboro, a rookie quarterback making his first road start came this close to beating the team that would prove to be the best in the AFC. This close.
Obviously, “close” only counts in horseshoes, darts, and hand grenades. But that narrow victory for the Patriots should instill a healthy level of awareness that a victory to start this season is anything but a cinch.
In that game, Watson had at least one “rookie” moment, as he threw a pick to Stephon Gilmore that was … bad. But, prior to throwing another interception on a Hail Mary in the game’s closing seconds, Watson had completed 68.8 percent of his passes for 301 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 41 yards on seven carries. (And the way he looked off Devin McCourty before throwing a dart for a touchdown on a deep post was exceptional.)
The point is, provided Watson is athletically at his peak in his recovery from a torn knee, the kid clearly won’t be fazed by the task of walking into Foxboro and succeeding. He’s done it before, and he should feel plenty confident that he can do it again.
J.J. Watt Is (Probably) Healthy
J.J. Watt is certainly among the most dynamic players in the NFL. He is a one-man game-changer. But if you only watched Patriots games, you’d never know this.
Of Watt’s 76 career sacks, zero have come against the New England Patriots. (He does have one half-sack in a postseason game.) A four-time All-Pro, a four-time Pro Bowler, and a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Watt has largely been neutralized whenever he’s gone up against a Belichick-coached team. He also missed the Texans’ loss to New England in the 2016 postseason due to injury, which he re-injured in Week 3 of that year in Foxboro.
Now, in a Week 1 matchup, fresh as he’ll ever be, and with some questions on New England’s offensive line heading into the year, Watt figures to be primed to make his presence felt for the first time against the Patriots. Even if Watt doesn’t accumulate stats himself, if he can be a force, he can open up opportunities for the rest of the playmakers on the Houston front seven — Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus chief among them.
In last year’s meeting, the Texans sacked Brady five times. Clowney scored a touchdown on a Mercilus strip sack. Brady survived — and thrived — but it was far from easy.
DeAndre Hopkins Remains Rather Dangerous
Malcolm Butler out, Eric Rowe in. How will things turn out? Well, DeAndre Hopkins figures to provide an early answer to that question.
With Super Bowl LII serving as everybody’s most recent memory of the Patriots’ pass defense (or lack thereof), there’s clearly a need for significant improvement in 2018. In terms of defensive backs, the only major change was the departure of Butler via free agency and the addition of veteran Jason McCourty via trade. The Patriots drafted Duke Dawson with a second-round pick, but an injury prevented anyone from learning much about his game in the preseason.
In any event, no matter which players are lined up in New England’s secondary, Hopkins is always going to be a problem. This is a young man who has averaged 90 receptions, 1,266 yards, and 8.5 touchdowns over the past four seasons, despite the list of quarterbacks throwing to him looking like this: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Ryan Mallett, Tom Savage, Brian Hoyer, T.J. Yates, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler, and the aforementioned Watson. There may be no greater feat accomplished in recent years in the NFL than that.
In some prior years, Logan Ryan did a solid job of covering Watson whenever the two teams met. But with Ryan gone last year (and with a capable quarterback under center for Houston), Hopkins caught seven passes for 76 yards in Houston’s trip to Foxboro. Only one pass intended for Hopkins went for an incompletion. He also drew a 34-yard pass interference penalty on Gilmore.
Hopkins obviously won’t be the only receiving threat on Sunday — Will Fuller remains among the fastest receivers in the sport, and Bruce Ellington caught a touchdown in New England last year — but like Watt on the defense, his own dominance can open up a number of opportunities for his teammates.
Who Fills The Cooks Role?
For whatever reason, many football fans in New England seemed to have been underwhelmed by Brandin Cooks’ lone season in New England. That is a story for another day (the list of receivers who arrive in Foxboro and immediately put up a thousand-yard season is … short), but for the purpose of assessing this week, it’s clear that someone is going to have to step up for the Patriots at wide receiver.
Last year, when it came to attacking the Texans’ defense, Tom Brady looked to two men: Rob Gronkowski and Brandin Cooks. The former will be there this weekend, but the latter will not. And there’s no clear and obvious candidate to make up for the loss.
Cooks was targeted on seven passes last year, catching five of them for 131 yards and two touchdowns. That of course included the game-winning touchdown with 23 seconds left in the fourth quarter … a catch that maybe wasn’t a catch. Regardless, it counted, and Cooks finished with his best regular-season performance as a member of the Patriots.
On Sunday, the Patriots will have Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson available at wide receiver, along with newcomer Chad Hansen. None seem capable of replicating Cooks’ performance, so the task of putting up 30-plus points against Houston becomes exponentially more difficult.
Add in that Tyrann Mathieu will now be flying around the secondary for Houston, and this game figures to be a potential grind for the Patriots’ offense.
Brady May Have To Be Perfect
Tom Brady is a Hall of Famer. Most football fans — happily or begrudgingly — regard him as the greatest quarterback of all time. He’s certainly accomplished quite a bit.
With that being established, beating the Texans last year may have required his single greatest game. Ever.
Hyperbole? Not really. Brady was unreal vs. the Texans last year, going 25-for-35 (71.4 percent) for 378 yards, five touchdowns, and zero interceptions. The then-40-year-old never showed a hint of fatigue on an 84-degree day, and he managed all of that production despite getting sacked five times and hit eight total times by a hungry Houston defense.
That was an afternoon where Patriots running backs were nearly nonexistent. The Patriots ran for just 53 yards on 19 carries for a 2.8-yard average. Their longest run of the day went for eight yards. Six rushes went for zero or negative yards.
Simply put, Brady had to essentially be perfect. And he was. Can he do it again, if needed? It’s surely possible. But relying on your 41-year-old quarterback to put forth that type of performance is generally not the best recipe for success.
A Week 1 Loss Would Not Be Out Of Character For The Patriots
This one has much less to do with the Texans as much as it has to do with the Patriots themselves. And though it’s somewhat surprising for a team as successful as the Patriots, starting off the season with a victory is not often a sure thing.
And we don’t have to go back to the infamous Lawyer Milloy game to make that point, either. Look at the last four years:
2014**: Loss, @ Miami, 33-20
2015: Win, vs. Pittsburgh, 28-21
2016**: Win, @ Arizona, 23-21
2017*: Loss, vs. Kansas City, 42-27
* made Super Bowl
** won Super Bowl
Even one of the wins wasn’t particularly convincing, as the Cardinals only lost in 2016 due to a missed 47-yard field goal at the end of regulation.
Clearly, a Week 1 loss would be nothing new for New England. And last year, quite obviously, whatever the overall defensive game plan was for the Patriots, it needed quite a bit of tinkering. This year, Brian Flores is running the defense (albeit in an unofficial capacity), and he’ll want to avoid such a major hiccup early in the year. On the other side of the ball, there will likely be some growing pains as the Patriots incorporate Trent Brown at left tackle and reacclimate Marcus Cannon at right tackle. (Nate Solder’s departure was a big one, but it was Solder who gave up the strip-sack-turned-TD last year.)
Put it all together, and it’s difficult to deny that the Patriots face a rather stiff challenge in their season opener. Can they win? Of course. Should they win? Absolutely. But with Vegas favoring New England by six or seven points, it’s at least worth recognizing that this year’s Texans-Patriots meeting should be looked upon as much more of an even matchup than those in past years might have been.
That’s as long as Bill O’Brien books the right hotel, though.
Tune in to Patriots-Texans Sunday afternoon on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots! Pregame coverage begins at 11:30 a.m. with Patriots GameDay, and after the game catch Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s press conferences LIVE on Patriots 5th Quarter!