Never had an off-season needed to end as much as the one the New England Patriots just endured. Similarly, perhaps never have calls for the end of the Patriots Dynasty looked more foolish.
New England did one of the many things it does best, knocking off the Houston Texans 27-20 to open up the 2018 season with a win.
Reports surfaced on Sunday morning that Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski would only keep playing if he stayed in Foxboro, squashing trade talks with other teams before they ever really began. You can’t blame No. 87, not when he still has Tom Brady – now 41 years old – still throwing in his direction.
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Gronk proved a nightmare for the Houston defense all afternoon long, catching seven passes for 123 yards and a touchdown. He was Brady’s preferred target on a day that also saw Phillip Dorsett put together arguably his finest game as a pro.
After catching just 12 passes for 194 yards in his first season in Foxboro, Dorsett is more than already halfway to last season’s total after grabbing seven passes for 66 yards. He also scored his first career touchdown as a Patriot, helping Brady inch closer to yet another milestone.
“Anybody can make plays and their confidence gets a boost, but the only thing really that matters is that we got the W,” Dorsett said.
Dorsett became the 69th player to catch a touchdown pass from Brady in the regular season, moving him within one of one of his former backups in Vinny Testaverde.
“Being here for a full season, I mean I got here a couple days before the first game [in 2017] and didn’t know anything,” Dorsett said in reflection of his journey in Foxboro. “I was learning as I go, I missed all the installs last off-season. I learned so much this off-season, honestly. Learning the ins and outs of the offense, how to run this route and that route, honestly helped me a lot.”
Gronkowski’s 21-yard touchdown grab in double coverage broke open the game’s scoring just over three minutes into the first quarter. It came on third-and-12, after New England’s first five plays from scrimmage were runs. Dont’a Hightower recovered a fumble after the Patriots initially went three-and-out to resuscitate the offense.
Brady connected with James White to make it 14-3 New England early in the second quarter, while Dorsett’s debut touchdown grab came with 19 seconds left in the first half to make it 21-6 heading into the locker room.
New England’s defense also had a banner day for the most part, taking advantage of Houston’s porous offensive line to get to DeShaun Watson with relative ease. The Patriots hit Watson 12 times in his return from an ACL injury, sacking him on four separate occasions. Deatrich Wise Jr. finished with 1.5 sacks for the Patriots, while Trey Flowers had 1.5 total sacks (tree half sacks) and Lawrence Guy had two half sacks.
“It was a strategic plan of closing the pocket and if he scrambled, being there when he took off,” Wise said of the team’s approach to holding Watson in check.
Watson finished 17 for 34 for 176 yards and an interception which came on a heave to the end zone that Stephon Gilmore ripped away from teammate Eric Rowe.
Stephen Gostkowski, who at 13 seasons officially became Brady’s longest-tenured teammate on Sunday, connected on field goals from 39 and 35 yards out in the second half to extend New England’s lead. He passed Kevin Faulk, who played with Brady for 12 seasons between 2000 and 2011.
The only bad news out of Gillette Stadium Sunday was the knee injury suffered by Jeremy Hill in the third quarter. He exited after teammate James Develin got knocked into his knee following a fumble by Gronkowski. Hill was helped off the field by trainers and while he walked to the locker room on his own, he was ruled out from returning rather quickly.
The Texans were also able to keep things interesting late in the game, thanks in part to Riley McCarron’s muffed punt at New England’s 16-yard line with 4:32 left in regulation. Houston was able to score six plays later and pull within a touchdown, 27-20.
The Patriots are off to Florida to face the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 2 in a rematch of last season’s AFC Championship Game. Kickoff is at 4:30 p.m. next Sunday.