New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick looks on during the first half against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., Aug. 30, 2018. (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - The New England Patriots are playing their season opener at Gillette Stadium today against the Houston Texans, but coach Bill Belichick was in midseason form last week in hyping the game.
Voice inflections? Nope.
Singular focus? Yep.
Heaping praise on the Texans' coaching staff Wednesday, headed by ex-Patriots coaches Bill O'Brien and Romeo Crennel? Most definitely yes.
"Impressive team, as they always are," he said of the Texans.
"They have a lot of outstanding players in all three phases of the game," he continued.
"They've consistently been one of the top defenses in the league in every category pretty much, when they're healthy," he said.
"He's a great technique coach, very good fundamental coach - as good as any I've ever seen," he said of Crennel, the defensive coordinator of Belichick's first three Super Bowl championship teams with the Patriots.
You get the picture.
For Belichick, all focus is on this opener, to make sure the Patriots get off on the right foot, unlike last year when they opened with a stunning 42-27 loss to Kansas City.
And, for Belichick, there is no greater challenge than dealing with "Opening Day questions," as he called them.
"Opening Day is always a challenge because the amount, the volume of all three phases and all the situations and all the things that have come up between last year, this year and new personnel and so forth," he said, noting that about a third of Houston's roster features new players.
The Patriots have their share of newcomers too: 13 players are on the roster for the first time.
So the uncertainty for Belichick isn't just about Houston; it's about how his players will react.
"I'm sure we'll see things that we haven't prepared for, just like we always do and always happens on Opening Day," said Belichick.
"So, again, Opening Day is Opening Day."
For the Houston Texans, their cause for confidence is rooted in something more than blind faith.
Their defense, ravaged by injuries during a dismal 4-12 season in 2017, has been reborn with healthy, talented contributors and reinforced with newcomers primed to make an impact.
Atop the former list is end J.J. Watt, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year whose last two campaigns have been aborted by catastrophic maladies. Watt broke his left leg in Week 5 against Kansas City, his season-ending surgery capping the number of games Watt played over the 2016-17 seasons at eight. Watt did not miss a start over his first five seasons in the league. His health concerns have raised doubts over his ability to return to form.
Also back for the Texans are outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, who tore his pectoral muscle in Week 5, and defensive tackle Christian Covington, sidelined the final nine games following a biceps injury. In the offseason, the Texans added a pair of veterans in safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Aaron Colvin to their secondary, as well as promising rookie safety Justin Reid.
The Texans allowed an NFL-high 27.3 points per game in 2017. If they maintain health, there is every reason to expect that average to drop precipitously this season.
In the offseason, New England moved on from running backs Dion Lewis (Tennessee Titans) and Mike Gillislee (New Orleans Saints), who finished first and second on the team in rushing yards, as well as receivers Brandin Cooks (Los Angeles Rams) and Danny Amendola (Miami Dolphins), who were second and third in receiving yards in 2017. Purported No. 1 wideout Julian Edelman's return in 2018 from a season-ending knee injury was delayed by a four-game suspension.
However, stability reigns in New England with Belichick and three-time MVP Tom Brady at quarterback, whose productivity defies all explanation.
"I mean, it is amazing, definitely," Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said of Brady. "But, to tell you the truth, I've seen it now for eight years and I see what he does. It's amazing how he's doing it, but also it doesn't amaze me at the same time anymore because he's doing everything right. Therefore, he should be playing at this level and therefore that's why he is. So, that just makes him that much more great."
New England also has a new look on defense.
Coordinator Matt Patricia became head coach of the Detroit Lions, and Belichick will be more hands-on with a unit that survived a bend-don't-break mentality all the way to the Super Bowl.
The first test for this group is against the Texans' second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson and All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Watson nearly led the Texans to a victory over the Patriots in 2017, only to fall to Brady's Patriots on the final drive.
"I just knew from the time that he arrived here that he had really good poise, very smart guy," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said.