Jim McBride’s review of the highs, lows, and everything in between in the Patriots’ 27-20 victory over the Texans in their season-opener on Sunday.
BEST COMEBACK MOMENT
The leader of the defensive front seven, Hightower missed most of last season with a torn pectoral muscle and his leadership and clutch playmaking ability were sorely missed.
He didn’t take long to get reacclimated.
Hightower pounced on Deshaun Watson’s fumble on Houston’s first play from scrimmage, quickly making the 65,878 in attendance forget about New England’s three-and-out on its first possession.
Three plays later, Tom Brady hit Rob Gronkowski with a 21-yard touchdown pass to give the Patriots a 7-0 advantage just 1:08 into the game. It was a lead they did not relinquish.
The receiver caught seven passes on seven targets for 66 yards and his first touchdown as a Patriot.
Dorsett has been working hard to build a rapport with Tom Brady all summer and the results Sunday spoke for themselves.
“Phillip did a great job, got some opportunities and then came up with the plays, came up with the catches,’’ said Brady.
Dorsett’s highlight move came one play before his touchdown, when he caught a short pass from Brady and put a filthy sidestep move on cornerback Kevin Johnson, who was left grabbing for air.
“[Cordarrelle Patterson], he taught it to me,’’ Dorsett said about the move. “[Johnson] didn’t want me to get to the sideline, so I made a move and stayed inbounds.’’
New England’s defensive line
The big guys up front were outstanding in containing Deshaun Watson and, for the most part, preventing one of the league’s most athletic quarterbacks from extending plays and making yards with his legs.
Watson was sacked three times for 18 yards in losses and hit a total of 12 times.
Leading the charge were Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise. The Raging Razorbacks had 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hits each. Adrian Clayborn also had a pair of quarterback hits.
“Like Coach always tell us, ‘Keep the pressure on the quarterback and plays will happen’ and that’s what we did,’ ’’ said Wise.
The second-year defensive end was quick to laud the secondary.
“It’s a combination of rush and coverage. Coach always says you have to have the rush and coverage marry so that big plays can happen,’’ he said. “If the receivers are covered and we create pressure on the quarterback, then something’s going to happen – either and interception, a pass break up, a sack, something’s going to happen.’’
New England’s kickoff coverage
The Patriots yielded 156 yards on five Tyler Ervin kickoff returns, consistently allowing the speedy Texan to slip tackles and get out past the 25-yard line. It was uncharacteristic of a Patriot team that prides itself on special teams play.
“That’s not us,’’ said special teams captain Matthew Slater, who refused to use the new kickoff rules as an excuse. “I think all in all, when we go back and look at our kickoff coverage we’re going to be disappointed in what we see. We have to use our hands better, we have to get off blocks [quicker].’’
The rookie linebacker had seven combined tackles, including one for a loss, and a quarterback hit. He got the starting nod alongside Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy, and continued to show the vision and instincts he displayed all summer.
The punt returner, just elevated from the practice squad, had a couple of hiccups, including fair catching a ball deep in his own territory and muffing one at his own 16 in the fourth that was recovered by former Patriot Johnson Bademosi and led to a Texans touchdown.
“I went up and tapped him on the head [and] I told him, ‘The play is over. We’ll move on from it,’ ’’ said new captain James White. “Riley’s a good football player. We’ve all made mistakes in some key moments so you’ve definitely just got to try and lift him up and keep his spirits because we still had a football game to play.’’
WORST COACHING DECISION
The Texans coach failed to call for a timeout after Rob Gronkowski’s 28-yard catch to the Houston 31 with 1:05 left in the first half.
All challenges with less than two minutes left have to come from above, but O’Brien could have called a timeout to at least get the wheels in motion for a booth review.
He may have been trying to get referee Tony Corrente’s attention, which led to our first hot mike of the season when Corrente said, to New York and everybody in the stadium, “We ran a play before you came to me.’’
O’Brien got a little testy when asked about it after the game, saying he wanted it to be “clear” that “I don’t have challenges with two minutes to go. So we are all clear on that.’’
Reminded he could have called a timeout, O’Brien said, “Yeah, great, I guess so.”
BEST COACH DECISION
Eschewing a field goal attempt on fourth-and-1 at the Houston 25, Belichick let Tom Brady sneak it and the quarterback picked up 2 yards and kept New England’s momentum rolling.
Three plays later, Brady hit James White on a 12-yard touchdown to give the hosts a 14-3 lead.
Stephon Gilmore drew Houston’s top target DeAndre Hopkins for a majority of the afternoon and definitely came out on top.
Hopkins did catch a game-high eight passes for 78 yards but he had little impact. Gilmore finished with a game-high eight tackles, two passes defensed, and an interception – though he wasn’t covering Hopkins on the pick.
“It was good. I made some plays, he made some plays,’’ said Gilmore. “The defense played good, I trusted my safeties, we got pressure on the quarterback, so we made plays.’’
Gilmore was called for two holding penalties on the Texans’ penultimate drive, but he wasn’t so sure about them.
“The first one? Maybe. The second one? I don’t know,’’ he said.
The rock solid fullback, known for his crushing blocks, chipped in with four catches for 22 yards. With all the talk about the lack of depth at the receiver position, did Develin solve the team’s problems with his performance?
“Absolutely not,’’ Develin said with a smile. “I was just going out there and trying to do what the coaches asked me to do, get as open as I could, and catch every ball that came to me. Thankfully I was able to do that today.’’
He didn’t save all his hard work for the stat sheet, however. Develin did display some of his trademark physicality, taking on — and neutralizing – J.J. Watt in the hole.
“They have a great defense,’’ he said. “We just have to try and execute and let Tom have the time he needs to make these plays.’’
“I was running up the seam and I had two guys on me and when I saw the ball in the air I literally thought first thing, ‘What is Tom thinking?’ ’’
He was describing his controversial catch at the end of the first half that kept a touchdown drive alive.
After one of the big defensive end’s sacks, he turned to the crowd and did his best Ernie McCracken bowling imitation.
“That was just spontaneous,’’ he said with a big laugh. “I was just doing something and all of the sudden I said, ah, ‘I’ll go bowling. Do a little bowling move. Strike!’ ’’
The tailback was having a solid debut (four carries, 25 yards plus a partially-blocked punt) before suffering a left knee injury on the first drive of the third quarter.
The injury happened seconds after Rob Gronkowski fumbled near midfield. Hill was in pursuit of Tyrann Mathieu, who had scooped up the loose ball.
Hill was attended to by the medical staff before he limped with help to the blue tent, and then to the locker room.
There was no word on the severity of the injury but Hill tweeted, “Gods Plan.”
“That’s incredibly unfortunate but we’ve got to just try to keep pressing on and just try to work as hard as we can and play hard in his honor,’’ said fullback James Develin.
Barring inclement weather from from Hurricane Florence, this rematch of the AFC Championship game could be a Category 5. The Patriots needed to come from behind at home to knock off the Jaguars and punch their Super Bowl ticket.
The Jaguars are the only ticket in town and anything short of another deep playoff run will be considered a disappointment by everyone from Tom Coughlin to the last guy signed to the practice squad.
Blake Bortles runs the Jacksonville offense and he’s blessed with two excellent, SEC-hardened backs in the strong Leonard Fournette and the speedy T.J. Yeldon. Bortles needs to find a new go-to receiver with Marqise Lee out for the season.
There are stars at every level of the defense, from beefy Marcell Dareus up front to Myles Jack at linebacker to elite corners Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye.