September 09. 2018 8:10PM

Not bad, for openers: Pats handle Texans, 27-20

By MIKE SHALIN
Special to the Union Leader


New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski reacts after his touchdown against the Houston Texans in the first quarter at Gillette Stadium. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — There were some things on offense that the Patriots could have done better in Sunday’s season opener against Houston.

But on this cloudy afternoon, it was the defense — with a little Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski mixed in — that really carried New England to a 27-20 opening victory.

Faced with the task of limiting the mobility of Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Patriots’ D did just that, severely threatening him in the pocket and cutting off his outside lanes when he was in trouble. In his first game back after knee surgery ended his 2017, he looked unsteady — and the Patriots had a lot to do with that.

“We thought it was very important to get out there and play from ahead,” defensive captain Devin McCourty said after the Patriots beat former assistant coach Bill O’Brien for the fifth straight time (three times in two seasons). “We just had to keep giving (the offense) chances to go out there and score.”

Watson and running back Lamar Miller failed to complete a simple handoff on the first play and from scrimmage and Dont’a Hightower recovered the ensuing fumble, leading to the first score of the season. Watson had a long pass into the back of the end zone picked off by Stephon Gilmore, was sacked three times, ran for 40 yards and was 17 of 34 for 176 yards passing.

Last year, he threw for 301 yards and ran for 41 more against the Patriots at Gillette, one of only seven games he had played in the NFL before Sunday.

“For me personally, I think it was terrible on my part,” Watson said. “I just feel like you can put the ‘L’ on me. I can play much better than what I showed today. The energy was low and (I was) just overthinking little things.”

Brady had an early pass intercepted after it was tipped at the line but was 29 of 39 for 277 yards and three touchdowns. He hit nine different receivers but Gronkowski, targeted eight times, and Phillip Dorsett, targeted seven, both caught seven passes. Both had a touchdown, Gronk amassed 123 yards — his 27th 100-yard game — and Dorsett had a career-high four catches.

“I don’t think we played anywhere near what our capabilities are,” Brady said. “I think it’s good to win, obviously, but we have to do a lot better than that. Just turning the ball over and not taking advantage of some opportunities that we had out there — all of us will probably look at the game and realize we could have done a lot of things differently.”

Dorsett’s contribution is important because the Patriots are ultra- thin at wide receiver with Julian Edelman suspended for the first four games and Danny Amendola now a Miami Dolphin. He was so good Sunday he even INTERCEPTED a pass that was probably headed for Chris Hogan.

“It’s kinda what he’s been doing all camp, all spring and it’s good to see it show up today,” Brady said of Dorsett, who never caught more than three passes in a game last season.

Brady hit Gronk with a questionable catch — it wasn’t reviewed and Gronk said after the game he had it — for 28 yards and then completed three to Dorsett — for 12, 14 and finally four yards for the touchdown that made it 21-6 at the half.

It was a vintage Brady drive.

While the offense may not have been vintage overall, the guys up front did a good job of limiting the potent players on the Houston defense, JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, invisible much of the time.

“Obviously, that’s a very good football team we played,” said Watt, who played his first game after breaking his leg in last year’s third game. “This league’s all about finding a way to win, and we just didn’t do it at the end of the day.”

The Texans, who have never won in Foxborough (0-7 counting postseason, 1-10 overall against New England) actually made some noise late and had one last shot. But Ryan Allen dropped a punt down at the Houston 1. The Texans advanced as far as their 43, but Watson’s Hail Mary — with Gronkowski one of the players back in the end zone — didn’t have a prayer.

Brady hit a double-covered Gronkowski with a 21-yard touchdown pass at the left pylon to open the scoring and made it 14-3 with a 12-yard TD to James White, who went in with the help of Gronkowski’s blocking.

Two Ka’imi Fairbairn field goals kept the visitors afloat but Dorsett’s TD with four second left in the half was a crusher. Stephen Gostkowski kicked a pair of field goals in the second half.

“We did a lot of good things,” said Pats coach Bill Belichick. “... We’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got a lot of work to do and we’ll just keep grinding it out here and see if we can get better each day, get better each week.”

Rex Burkhead ran for 64 tough yards on 18 carries and White and fullback James Develin caught four passes apiece.