Twenty-seven thoughts on the Patriots’ 27-20 victory over the Texans . . .
1. At times it felt like the fifth preseason game — Tom Brady threw a deflected interception, Rob Gronkowski fumbled after a catch, and pretty much when painfully rusty Deshaun Watson tried to do anything — and there’s no doubt it was closer at the end than necessary. But make no mistake: The Patriots’ occasionally messy victory deserves some appreciation. Brian Flores’s defense was often terrific, Brady and Gronkowski connected with their usual ease, and while the Texans once again looked like a team that played below its talent level, give the Patriots credit for making them look that way. A lot of people thought the Patriots were going to lose this game. Even with the Texans being a Hail Mary from tying it at the end, it never felt as if the game was out of their command. Save for a few attractive moments, it was an ugly grind, but that 1 sure looks nice in the win column.
2. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to call it cathartic, but it sure was fitting to see Brady connect with Gronkowski for the first touchdown of the season, a 21-yard dart down the left sideline that put the Patriots up, 7-0, in the first. The TD was from the go-with-the-sure-thing page of the playbook after Josh McDaniels futzed around with trying to establish the run and getting other receivers involved early. Gronk remains a heck of a security blanket.
3. By Patriots standards, it was a melodramatic offseason, and perhaps that’s an understatement. But to see Gronk out there doing Gronk things — and on a day when the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport revealed that Gronk essentially killed the possibility of a trade by saying he wouldn’t play anywhere else — was a nice reminder that we’re back to the fun part again.
4. Jadeveon Clowney is 6 feet 5 inches and 270 points, and yet when he was matched up against Patriots tackle Trent Brown (a minuscule 6-8, 369), he often looked like a seventh-grader trying to beat his ex-lineman coach in a practice drill.
5. I buy the hype around Watson and think he’s going to become a franchise quarterback. But he looked like someone who hadn’t played since, oh, Week 7 last season, which is exactly the case. He seemed to be a split-second late on every throw. With 5:30 left in the first half, he was 4 of 12 for 49 yards, with a fumble lost and an interception. He finished 17 of 35 for 176 yards, with a pick and a TD.
6. The interception came on a deep ball at that 5:30 mark of the second, when Watson let one fly toward the end zone from the New England 42. Eric Rowe had it in his mitts, but Stephon Gilmore came over and plucked it away after a slight bobble.
7. Every year now, at least for the last two or three, I wonder whether Matthew Slater will start to slow down, or whether he might be a surprise cut in training camp. Few special-teams-only players last a decade in the league, even Belichick favorites, and this is Year 11.
8. Best commercial: The Wanna Get Away? Southwest ad in which a knockoff James Bond villain takes a wine cork to his good eye. Worst commercial: Not even sure what it was selling, but I’d love to see the pitch meeting that gave us Matt Leinart throwing an alcoholic beverage to a knockoff Golden Girl.
9. Trey Flowers picked up his first sack of the season with 2:52 left in the first quarter, burying Watson on third down and forcing Ka’imi Fairbairn to kick a 42-yard field to cut it to 7-3. Flowers led the Patriots with 6.5 sacks last season. Betcha he doubles that number this year.
10. Loved the fake reverse to Cordarrelle Patterson on the play before handing off to him for a 10-yard gain early in the second quarter. It’s clear the Patriots don’t regard him strictly as a receiver or as a return man, but as a uniquely skilled weapon to be deployed in unconventional ways. This is going to be fun, with occasional moments of exasperation and invisibility.
11. Bears repeating: Entering the game, Patterson averaged 10 yards per catch in his career, and 10.3 yards per carry (on 44 attempts, not a small sample).
12. A bit strange to see the Patriots begin the game with run-run-run en route to a three-and-out. James White had the ball on second and third downs. He’s a terrific player with a secure place in Patriots lore, but he’s so much more effective when Brady throws the ball to him rather than hands it off.
13. J.J. Watt cut White’s legs out from under him to thwart a rushing attempt with 7:35 left in the third quarter. Don’t think I had heard his name all day before that, other than during commercials. He’s getting to that Ray Lewis/Derek Jeter stage of his career where the only time you notice him is when the camera forces us to watch his reaction to his teammates’ good plays.
14. In his first game since last October, Dont’a Hightower looked a step slow, finishing with just two assisted tackles and a fumble recovery. I don’t think that’s unexpected, though, and his importance in the long term isn’t a mystery.
15. Tony Romo is probably the most analyzed analyst in sports right now, coming off an impressive but hardly perfect first season in the booth. He sounded like the same guy to me Sunday, with easy affability and a knack for immediate insight.
16. He also still falls into that amped-up, rapid-speech voice right before commercials, and he’s still a little too quick to declare an injury serious. I give him a B+ for this one, with the expectation of further good grades. The bar is set high.
17. The first quarter wasn’t even complete — I think there were two minutes left — when Romo said he was impressed by the Patriots defense and assured fans that they would rush the passer better than they did a year ago. “Get excited, they’re going to be decent,’’ said Romo. Decent? That’s the problem. They already were decent, but needed to better than that.
18. Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu had an interception in the first quarter (a Texans lineman deflected Brady’s throw, intended for White) and a fumble recovery in the third (after Kareem Jackson poked the ball away from Gronkowski) in his Texans debut. Still can’t believe that guy is just 26.
19. There were some weird goings-on in the final two minutes of the first half, none weirder than Texans coach Bill O’Brien letting a debatable Gronkowski catch go without obvious protest (or a timeout to stall, at least). Apparently he was waiting for the under-two-minute review that never came.
20. Then Gene Steratore, the former official who is trying to become CBS’s version of Mike Pereira, came on the air to make his in-game debut, only to sound as if he was talking through a Darth Vader mask.
21. Not exactly the impression you’re going for there, though he didn’t hem and haw and actually said he would have overtuned the catch, which means he’s already better at this than Mike Carey was.
22. The final two minutes also contained something I doubt you’ll see again anytime soon: A running back blocking a punt — the Patriots’ Jeremy Hill — then carrying the ball on the ensuing two plays on offense. That’s a different kind of versatility.
23. Have to feel for Hill, who appeared to suffer a knee injury not long after his successful sequence when he was hit by teammate James Develin. Hopefully it’s not as bad as it looked when he was writhing on the turf.
24. Riley McCarron looked Chris Harper-level shaky on punts, and coughed up a costly fumble when the ball bounced off his facemask late in the fourth quarter. In a related note, Cyrus Jones is on the Ravens’ practice squad.
25. Encouraging game for Phillip Dorsett, who completed the drive at the end of the first half with a 4-yard touchdown reception. He finished with 7 catches for 66 yards. It wasn’t quite what Brandin Cooks did last year against Houston (5-131-2), but it was a sign he has earned his way into the Brady circle of trust.
26. Brady missed a couple of throws early, overthrowing an open, end-zone-bound Rex Burkhead on the second possession (“May not miss that again the rest of the year.” — Romo), then a few possessions later throwing a third-down pass toward White that dropped like a Bruce Sutter split-finger.
27. But in the end, he was . . . well, Brady, which is to say both efficient and excellent. Brady finished 26 of 39 for 277 yards, with three touchdowns and an interception, while spreading the ball around to eight receivers. Not bad for a 41-year-old. Shoot, not even bad for a 27-year-old.