After an off-season filled with drama for all those in New England from Malcom Butler‘s benching in the Super Bowl, to the status of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s relationship to the Julian Edelman PED suspension as well, the time for talk is over and on Sunday it’s about the football. Finally, the inflatable helmet will take it’s rightful place in the North End Zone with the Lighthouse in the backdrop and “Crazy Train” will ring out as the team sprints onto the playing surface while Brady channels his trademark “LETS GO!” on the Patriots sideline. Football is back in New England, baby.
For the fourth time in three years, the Houston Texans travel to Foxboro and Gillette Stadium for a clash with Tom Brady & Bill Belichick. New England is 3-0 in the previous three contest winning 27-0 (September ’16), 34-16 (Divisional Round ’16) and 36-33 (September ’17) in the trio of home affairs. This one will fare a little differently as it is the season opening game for the Patriots, at home, against a very tough opponent in Houston with a healthy Deshaun Watson. With further ado, here’s my full game preview and prediction.
First let’s dive into the Patriots offense and the matchup against Romeo Crennel‘s Houston defense. With Mike Vrabel departing for the head coaching gig in Tennessee, the keys to the Houston defense are handed back over to Romeo who has the returning former Defensive Player of the Year JJ Watt anchoring his defense. Watt is a force in the run and pass game, and New England will have to double him all game long if they have any intention of keeping him out of the backfield and off of Brady. Houston has some play-makers on that side of the ball with Jadaveon Clowney rushing off the edge and Whitney Mercilus captaining the linebacker corp. Oh yeah and Houston went out and added “The Honey Badger” Tyrann Mathieu to play center field on their defense who will be looking to cover Gronk on Sunday.
The battle for New England here is in the trenches. It’s a big test for the offensive line. Trent Brown will be thrust in the spotlight and tasked with protecting a 41-year-old QB’s blind-side against imposing pass rushers. I am confident in the interior offensive lineman getting the job done against the Houston with the combination of Thuney, Andrews and Mason, but the tackle spot scares me. Cannon is reportedly “good to go” for the opening game, but if not you’re looking at Brown & Waddle on the edge against Watt, Clowney and Mercilus. That spells trouble for TB12.
If New England can protect Brady and go on the victory it will be due to the involvement of the backs. Expect a big input from James White from the jump with Rex Burkehead and Sony Michel missing almost the entirety of camp and the pre-season with knee injuries and now trying to get up to speed. Control the game pounding the ball with Jeremy Hill and quick passes to White, Phillip Dorsett, Cordarrelle Patterson and Chris Hogan. I’m eager to see what these new weapons can do in real game action, as we have already seen flashes of what’s possible this pre-season. As far as the weapons for New England, as long as Rob Gronkowski is healthy and on the field, the rest all falls into place as he opens up the underneath game and the ability for backs to slip out of the backfield and make explosive plays.
Now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for, previewing the dynamic returning Deshaun Watson and the Houston offense called by coach Bill O’ Brien against Belichick’s defense that was last seen torched for 41 points in the Super Bowl in the last real game action. Matt Patricia has departed as defensive coordinator in favor of the Detroit Lions head coaching job and although the role is currently “vacant”, it’s linebackers coach Brian Flores who has been calling the defense in a revamped much more aggressive unit, at least from what we’ve seen in pre-season action.
Last September, the Patriots had their hands full against Watson and DeAndre Hopkins in Foxboro needing a game-winning drive from the offense to pull off the 36-33 win. Houston will be looking to get RB Lamar Miller involved early and often with Watson and the 1-2 punch with Hopkins and Fuller could prove to be difficult to contend with. I will say that at least on paper, I like what the Patriots have in their front seven. New England added Adrian Clayborn to rush off the edge with Danny Shelton up the middle and drafted Ja’Whaun Bentley who has looked to be a great player and a steal of a 5th round pick out of Purdue. Deatrich Wise is entering year two, Derek Rivers in back and healthy as is Dont’a Hightower and Trey Flowers has proved to be their best pure pass rusher. Stephon Gillmore will have his hands full with Hopkins all day, but if he can keep him in check, at least off the scoreboard and under 100 yards, the Patriots will win the football game. Set the edge, keep Watson in the pocket and DO NOT let him make plays with his legs either on the ground or through the air. That’s how you lose. Maybe I’m over-selling the additions to this roster, but from the tape I’ve seen from the pre-season outside of McCaffrey running all over them in week three, I’m buying in.
Watson & Hopkins will be tough to contain, but I foresee New England coming out on fire on their home field to kick off the 2018 campaign. A couple of early stops from the defense and the offense putting points on the board from the jump get the Pats a double-digit cushion and they build off the early momentum onto victory. Tom Brady throws for 2 TD’s and New England wins 30-23.
Follow Frank Pimentel on Twitter: @FrankBostonTank