FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots massaged all of their offseason turmoil away like quarterback Tom Brady’s ubiquitous body coach Alex Guerrero and kicked off their pursuit of a sixth Lombardi Trophy in typical fashion. They put all of the knotty issues of ego, credit, control, contracts, and proper appreciation behind them and christened the 2018 season with a familiar-looking victory over a familiar foil.
Year 19 of the Brady-Bill Belichick union began Sunday with a ho-hum 27-20 victory over the Houston Texans and former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien at Gillette Stadium. The Texans didn’t don those silly pre-O’Brien letterman jackets, but they got schooled once again. O’Brien is now 0-5 against the Patriots as Texans head coach.
Relationships might have changed in Fort Foxborough — or ebbed and flowed as Brady said in the “Tom vs Time” docuseries epilogue — but the standard of football remains unscathed. The Patriots ignored the noise that they stoked all offseason and got back to winning football games. All is right in our football world.
After an offseason of “Tom vs Time” and Tom vs. Bill, it was nice to see the Patriots vs. another team in a meaningful game. Finally, the focus shifted to what happened on the field in an NFL game, not what was taking place off it in an NFL soap opera.
However, the interpersonal intrigue that defined the Patriots offseason and preseason chased them right up to the opening kickoff on Sunday with reports by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport that in the spring the team was in “intense trade talks” to deal Rob Gronkowski before Gronk threatened retirement if traded, and that Guerrero would be able to treat both Brady and Gronkowski freely as part of a compromise over the guru’s privileges.
The discord and disconnect form the backdrop of this season, but now fade into the background. The players were happy to be answering questions about a football game.
“It feels good because this is what we want to talk about, football,” said safety Duron Harmon. “This is what we get paid to do. This is what we love to do. Obviously, it was the offseason so you guys had to talk about something else other than obviously the games. Not mad about that, but it’s just the way it is in the offseason. But I’m excited to be back out here with the boys, excited to start the season with a win, and excited where we are headed.”
While everything looked A-OK with the peaceful coexistence of the Patriots’ principals, neither Brady nor Belichick rated this an A-effort by the Patriots’ lofty standards.
Brady and Gronk were transcendent and fittingly combined for the Patriots’ first touchdown of the season, 3 minutes and 10 seconds into the game. Looking not a day over 30, the 41-year-old Brady was 26 of 39 for 277 yards with three touchdowns. Gronkowski caught 7 of the 8 balls thrown his way for 123 yards and a score.
However, both committed turnovers (interception and fumble, respectively). The offense punted on six of its 13 possessions and was just 4 of 14 on third down. The defense, which stifled dynamic Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, was at its bend-but-don’t-break best in the red zone, but allowed 4.9 yards per rush and committed some costly penalties late that kept the Texans’ flickering hopes alive.
The Patriots weren’t really threatened until returner Riley McCarron muffed a punt at his 16, shades of Chris Harper in Denver in 2015, with 4:32 left in the fourth quarter. That set up a Texans touchdown that pulled them within 27-20, but it was a fourth-quarter formality.
Overall, this was an encouraging debut for the Patriots, though.
Some of the consternation about who was going to be catching passes from Brady was quelled by a quality effort from wideout Phillip Dorsett, who caught all seven passes sent his way for 66 yards and a touchdown. The Patriots will need more of that with Julian Edelman suspended through Week 4 for testing positive for PEDs.
When the Patriots authored one of their patented soul-crushing, end-of-half touchdown drives Dorsett was at the center of it, catching three passes in four plays, the last a 4-yard TD grab with 14 seconds left in the first half that boosted the Patriots’ lead to 21-6. Dorsett got to see what it’s like behind the velvet rope of Brady’s Circle of Trust, an exclusive area reserved for reliable receivers. He received a warm embrace and a double tap on the back of the helmet from Brady after catching his first touchdown pass as a Patriot.
“I think if you’re out there I trust you, the coaches trust you, the team trusts you,” said Brady. “That’s why we’re putting you out there. So, guys that usually we don’t trust don’t get much opportunity out there. So, Phillip did a great job with his opportunity today.”
A defense last seen in a real game allowing the Philadelphia Eagles to score on five straight possessions in Super Bowl LII, forced six punts, two turnovers, and a turnover on downs while rendering Houston hopeless on third down (2 for 11). Instead of looking for receivers, Watson spent most of his time staring at the Patriots pass rush, which registered three sacks and 12 quarterback hits.
Returning from a torn ACL that limited him to seven games as a rookie, Watson looked rusty and flustered in the first half, turning the ball over twice, including a fumble on Houston’s first snap, and completing just 5 of 13 passes for 61 yards. He certainly didn’t resemble the phenom who torched the Patriots at Gillette in September last season.
Watson finished 17 of 34 for 176 yards with one touchdown pass and two turnovers. If you’re keeping track that’s still one turnover fewer than former Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had for the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in a loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
This was a good day for the Patriots. Garoppolo suffered his first NFL loss as a starter. Any disconnect or discord between Belichick and the team’s two best players melted away in the afterglow of victory. Brady and Gronk showed zero ill effects from their offseason absences.
I asked former Patriot Wes Welker, now a Texans assistant coach, if he was surprised at how well his buddy Brady played after an unsettled and unsettling offseason.
“No, it doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Welker. “This is easy for him. He’s Tom. It’s football, he has been doing it for this long, it gets easy for him.”
Getting the band back together looked easy in Game 1. Their issues have been put on pause, if not resolved. The common good and the common goal are the focus.
And football is once again the primary focus in Foxborough.