Tom Brady threw for 277 yards and three touchdowns, hitting Rob Gronkowski for 123 yards and a score Sunday to lead the defending AFC champion New England Patriots to a 27-20 victory over the Houston Texans.
Brady and Gronkowski, who both floated the possibility of retiring over the off-season, connected seven times, including a 21-yard touchdown three plays after Deshaun Watson fumbled a handoff at the Texans' 19 on Houston’s first offensive play.
“All that talk about that stuff, I would love to put it in the past,” said Gronkowski, who was dangled as trade bait before the team added US$4.3-million in reachable incentives to his contract. “I’m here. I’m here to stay. I’m enjoying my time.”
Brady, 41, also dropped hints that he wasn’t committed to playing this season after a year in which backup Jimmy Garoppolo threatened to unseat him. Garoppolo was traded to San Francisco midseason, and Brady later repeated his hope that he would play into his mid-40s.
The reigning NFL MVP also found Phillip Dorsett and James White for TD passes but said he wasn’t satisfied with how he performed. In all, he completed 26 of 39 passes; he also had an interception on a pass that was tipped at the line of scrimmage.
“I don’t think we played anywhere near where our capabilities are,” he said. “All of us probably look at the game and realize we could have done things better.”
Watson, who missed the final nine games last season with a torn right ACL, completed 17 of 35 passes for 176 yards, one score and one interception. He struggled to move the team in the first 40 minutes, managing just a pair of field-goal drives before Alfred Blue ran it in from one yard to make it 24-13 in the final two minutes of the third period.
A muffed punt by New England’s Riley McCarron with fewer than five minutes left set up Watson’s five-yard TD pass to Bruce Ellington and cut the deficit to 27-20. But after getting the ball back at their one yard with 43 seconds left, the Texans failed to reach midfield.
With Julian Edelman serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy against performance enhancers, Dorsett caught seven passes for 66 yards, including a four-yard TD pass in the closing seconds of the first half to make it 21-6. White had four receptions for 38 yards, including a 12-yard score.
Lamar Miller ran 20 times for 98 yards for Houston, which welcomed Watson, defensive lineman J.J. Watt and linebacker Whitney Mercilus back from injuries. Watt had two quarterback hurries, but D.J. Reader had the only two sacks of Brady, both late.
“It’s good to play a full game to know it lasts, to know it holds up,” said Watt, a three-time defensive player of the year. “I didn’t think about it once. So, that’s all you can ask for.”
It was Watson who felt the pressure the rest of the game.
The second-year quarterback, who threw for 301 yards in a 36-33 loss to New England last year in his second NFL start, botched a handoff with Miller in the first quarter, setting the Patriots up for their first touchdown. In the second quarter, Watson inexplicably chucked the ball into the end zone for a double-covered Vyncint Smith on a second-and-three from the New England 42.
Stephon Gilmore brought it down for the interception.