By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — The Patriots are 1-0. They did not take the perfect route to get there. In fact, there were points that were downright sloppy.
But such can often be the case in Week 1 of an NFL season, where any team is happy to walk out of the stadium with a victory.
This one probably should have been a bit more decisive on the scoreboard, and the Patriots have to feel as though Houston never should have even had an opportunity to try to tie the game in the final seconds. At the same time, the Texans are heading back to Houston feeling similar regret, but with the added sting of a notch in the loss column to start the year.
So, as you might expect, there were some ups. There were some downs.
Much has been made this summer about the Patriots’ receiving corps lacking a bit of firepower. A disclaimer along the lines of “they still do have Gronk, but … ” have always been included in those evaluations. Perhaps there should not have been a “but.”
Gronkowski was every bit the impact player that he was last season, when he made First Team All-Pro for the fourth time of his career. He caught seven passes on Sunday for 123 yards and a touchdown. That touchdown came when he was tightly covered up the left sideline with safety help coming over the top, but he deftly spun to make a back-shoulder grab before tiptoeing into the end zone for the Patriots’ first points of 2018.
He also made an absurd diving catch up the right seam late in the first half for a gain of 28 yards to help set up a touchdown, and he draw a pass interference penalty for 14 yards on another Patriots touchdown drive.
He had a bit of a controversial offseason, but he got his regular season off to as strong a start as anybody could have wanted.
Last year, Deshaun Watson proved to be a bit of a problem for the Patriots’ defense. This year, the defensive line made it a point of emphasis to not let that happen again.
Though the second half saw Watson operate with a bit more efficiency, the Patriots’ defensive line unleashed an onslaught of pressure on seemingly every snap in the first half. In total, the Patriots ended up sacking Watson three times, with Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise getting credited with 1.5 sacks each. But as is often the case, the pressure was a multi-person effort, with Adrian Clayborn, Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton contributing to a constantly collapsing pocket for Watson.
It would be a bit ignorant to ignore Brady in this column, even though his performance was perhaps slightly under his own exceptionally high standard.
Nevertheless, Brady operated the Patriots offense essentially as he’s been doing for year after year after year. Though a number of new and different faces surrounded him, the quarterback spread the ball around rather evenly. He connected with eight different receivers, while throwing touchdowns to three different players.
He did throw a pick on a pass that was tipped at the line of scrimmage by Angelo Blackson, but overall his numbers were solid: 26-for-39, 277 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT. He’s 41 years old (as you may have heard once or twice on the news), but he looks just about the same as always.
Phillip Dorsett/James Develin
Life is all about opportunity. Playing football, likewise, is all about making the most of the chances you get.
And so, with Julian Edelman suspended for the first four games of the season, Phillip Dorsett was granted a major opportunity to carve out an important role on the offense. Through one game, he’s capitalized.
Dorsett caught seven passes for 66 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. The touchdown came immediately after he had hauled in a pass for 14 yards to set up a goal-to-go situation just before halftime. That’s generally a time of game when the Patriots are at their sharpest, so it’s noteworthy that Brady looked Dorsett’s way for two straight plays to finish off that all-important scoring drive.
Last year, Dorsett caught just 12 passes for 194 yards total. It seems fair to say that he should surpass those numbers very quickly this year. The seven catches set a new single-game career high for Dorsett, too.
And, well, it wouldn’t be right to wrap up the Ups without a mention of fullback James Develin, who proved to be an unlikely receiver with four catches 22 yards. That included a 10-yard reception on a second-and-8 late in the fourth quarter to give the Patriots a fresh set of downs to try to drain the clock.
Develin’s always lining up as a receiver, and he’s come through in a number of ways in years past. But the four receptions marks a career high (his previous high for a game was two).
BONUS: Ryan Allen and Jonathan Jones
The Patriots’ offense couldn’t get the job done late in the fourth quarter, with Develin incidentally tangling up Rex Burkhead on a third-and-2. That forced a Patriots punt, and with only a seven-point lead, it was a bit of a precarious spot.
Enter punter Ryan Allen, who expertly dropped his punt inside the 5-yard line. Jonathan Jones was in perfect position to casually grab the punt on a single hop, downing it on the 1-yard line and forcing Houston to travel the full 99 yards in order to tie the game. Houston didn’t make it.
You don’t want to pick on a 25-year-old making his NFL debut after spending a year on two practice squads. This guy was just activated from the practice squad on Thursday. But the NFL is a bottom line business, and the bottom line shows that McCarron erred in a major way on Sunday.
With the Patriots leading 27-13 with 4:41 left on the clock, the Texans decided to punt. It was the waving of a white flag, really. All McCarron needed to do as a punt returner was either signal for a fair catch or just abandon the return altogether. The clock was the only Patriots opponent at that point, so the yardage of any potential return was unncessary.
But McCarron let the punt hit his facemask, leading to a bobble and a muffed punt. He actually fell right on top of the ball but didn’t know its location, allowing former Patriot Johnson Bademosi to recover the ball for Houston. The Texans would go on to score a touchdown on the gifted drive, cutting the Patriots’ lead to just seven points and leading to a lot of unnecessary tension inside a stadium where most folks believed the game had already been decided.
McCarron also made a questionable decision in the first quarter to fair catch a punt at the 6-yard line, when it appeared as though the kick had a very good chance of bouncing into the end zone for a touchback.
Again, it’s a results-based business. And while defensive holding penalties are debatable by nature, the fact is that Gilmore was called for two of them on that aforementioned Texans scoring drive in the fourth quarter. The second was particularly costly.
The first came on a Deshaun Watson run for a gain of seven yards. Instead of facing a third-and-4 at the New England 10-yard line, the Texans were given a first-and-goal at the 5-yard line, due to Gilmore’s defensive holding penalty.
Three plays later, on third-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Watson threw incomplete, setting up a dramatic fourth-down. But that fourth down play never came, because Gilmore was tagged with another defensive holding penalty. The Texans got a free first down from the penalty, and they capitalized with a touchdown two plays later.
Gilmore ultimately had a solid game, picking up an interception on a deep ball in the first half, sticking his nose in on tackles when needed, and working to really limit the impact of DeAndre Hopkins. But those penalties in that situation definitely made life tougher for the Patriots.
A bit of a stretch here, for the all-world tight end who obviously landed in the Ups as well. But it wasn’t a perfect game for Gronkowski, as he committed a fumble near midfield after making an impressive catch above his head and turning up field for some extra yardage.
The Texans didn’t end up turning that turnover into points, failing on a fourth-and-5 pass from the Patriots’ 17-yard line. But a fumble in that situation — with the Patriots leading 21-6 early in the third quarter and looking to put the game out of reach early — contributed to an overall sluggish second half of scoring for New England.
Remarkably, it was just the fourth fumble of Gronkowski’s career, and just the third time the opponent has recovered his fumble. He hasn’t lost a fumble since 2012. So it’s unlikely this issue continues. It was more a case of a defender making a smart play on the ball at full speed. Still, a turnover like that earns a spot on the Downs list.
This one didn’t look good. At all.
Making his Patriots debut in a season with a lot of hope and promise, Hill pursued Texans safety Kareem Jackson on that Gronkowski fumble. Hill nearly had Jackson wrapped up when Patriots fullback James Develin went in for a tackle attempt. Develin’s diving attempt ended with him inadvertently hitting Hill’s knee, sending the running back down to the turf in clear and obvious pain. He remained there for several minutes before getting help to the sideline. He did not return.
Hill’s tweet after the game didn’t offer much encouragement for his status.