FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots had plenty of reasons to smile on Sunday afternoon.
They emerged with a 27-20 win over a scrappy Texans team in a game the Patriots controlled throughout. Tom Brady showed few signs of rust, throwing for three touchdowns and completing passes to eight receivers. Rob Gronkowski proved that offseason practices don’t mean much, catching seven passes for 123 yards and a touchdown after skipping most of the workouts this spring.
And yet . . .
“We’ve got to do a lot better than that,” Brady said. “I don’t think we played anywhere near what our capabilities are. All of us probably look at the game and realize we could have done a lot of things differently.”
The Patriots may be 1-0, but they weren’t exactly jumping for joy over their season-opening win. Some of that is just the Patriots being the Patriots — they will never acknowledge they are happy with the progress of the team, especially after just one week.
But Brady does have a point. Sunday’s performance was a solid opener, but the Patriots can do better, too.
They committed three turnovers, two by the offense — an interception on a tipped pass in the first quarter, and a lost fumble by Gronkowski in the third quarter. The Patriots scored just 6 points in the second half, and couldn’t quite put the Texans away. And the Patriots converted just 4 of 14 opportunities on third down.
“It’s a good win, obviously, but we’ve got to do a lot better,” Brady said. “You’ve got to coach hard and you’ve got to correct guys, and you’ve got to correct yourself and have high expectations for yourself. And that’s how you have high expectations for the team.”
Brady was being a little too hard on himself, given the circumstances. Playing without Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola, Brady still threw for 277 yards and finished with a healthy 102.2 passer rating. Brady found ways to get everyone involved, as his first nine completions went to eight receivers. And Brady, like Gronk, didn’t look like he missed a beat after skipping most of the spring workouts. He shuffled well in the pocket and took just two sacks and five hits on 41 passing plays.
“He’s everything I expected him to be,” said Texans safety Tyrann Mathieu, who had an interception and fumble recovery in his first game against Brady. “He’s very smart, very cerebral, and has a great understanding of pre-snap and post-snap assignments.”
But the two Patriots turnovers on offense were disconcerting, as was the lack of punch early and late in the game. The Patriots gained 389 yards but had opportunities for more.
“Obviously, we made mistakes. It wasn’t perfect,” receiver Phillip Dorsett said. “I know for a fact in [Brady’s] mind the offense can play better.”
The players, interestingly, were more bummed about their performance than coach Bill Belichick was.
“I thought our guys played really competitively. We did a lot of good things,” Belichick said. “Obviously, some things we need to improve on, clean up on. But that’s the way it always is in a game like this. Houston’s tough. We expected it to go all 60 minutes, like it did, and come down to the final play. That’s pretty much what we’ve got.”
There was plenty on offense for Belichick to like. The decision to trade Brandin Cooks this offseason looks a lot smarter after Dorsett’s solid game on Sunday. He caught all seven passes thrown his way, for 66 yards and a touchdown. This after Dorsett caught just 12 passes for 194 yards and no touchdowns all of last season, when he was acquired in a trade right before the start of the regular season.
“I’ve known the guy since high school. He works extremely hard,” running back James White said. “A lot was thrown at him fast. Then he took the challenge this offseason to learn the offense as best as he can and be in the right spots, and I think he showed today he can be a good player for us.”
The whole drama of Brady and Gronkowski skipping offseason workouts also didn’t have any effect on the field. Gronkowski was the engine of the offense, coming up with the Patriots’ three longest plays — a 30-yarder in the third quarter to convert a third down, a 28-yarder late in the second quarter to put the Patriots in touchdown range, and a 21-yard touchdown in double coverage in the first quarter.
“We’ve been playing together for a long time,” Brady said. “I know his body language. I know his ability to run and what routes. He can really do all the routes. It’s just a matter of giving him a chance, and it came with a big touchdown today.”
The Patriots were able to get Cordarrelle Patterson involved in the offense, with three end-arounds and one slip screen for 19 total yards. Rex Burkhead showed that he’s going to be a big part of the offense, rushing 18 times for 64 yards and lining up as a receiver on a handful of plays.
The offensive line protected Brady well, limiting Jadeveon Clowney, J.J. Watt, and Whitney Mercilus to a combined seven tackles, two QB hits (both by Watt), and no sacks. Even fullback James Develin got into the act, catching four passes for 22 yards. His career high is six catches, set last year.
“I’m probably not going to be a weekly [fantasy] scorer, but I’ll get you a few points here and there,” Develin quipped.
But despite walking out of Gillette Stadium with a win and a 1-0 record, the players felt a bit underwhelmed by the performance.
“We definitely didn’t play our best game,” White said. “Had a couple stagnant drives, had some turnovers. Got to get back to the drawing board, watch the film, and a lot we got to improve. We play another good defense [in Jacksonville] next week.”