Injuries prevented the Texans from finding out exactly what their team could have been last season.
Star defensive end J.J. Watt, linebacker Whitney Mercilus and quarterback Deshaun Watson were among 21 Houston players that spent time on injured reserve during the 2017 campaign. The season predictably imploded, ending with six straight losses.
But before the avalanche of injuries, the Texans gave the eventual AFC champion New England Patriots all they could handle during a Week 3 visit to Gillette Stadium.
Despite having a rookie signal caller in Watson, the Texans offence matched touchdowns with the Patriots. Houston was headed for an improbable victory before Tom Brady rescued his team with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks in the final minute to give New England a 36-33 victory.
Now healed and with a rehabilitated defence, the Texans return to New England on Sunday, hoping to put their misfortunes in the past as they open the 2018 season.
That is particularly true in the case of Watt, who has had parts of the past two seasons derailed by injuries.
He played just three games in 2016 before being sidelined with a herniated disc. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year then appeared in five games last season before having his year ended by a fractured left tibia.
“I’m just looking forward to playing football again,” Watt said. “Obviously the last two years have been very rough for me. You want to play, and everything that I’ve had to go through in the rehabs and the recoveries and all that it took and then, obviously, [Hurricane Harvey] as well.
“But I’m just looking to getting back out on the field, playing football, flying around with the guys, doing what I love.”
Meanwhile, the Patriots begin yet another season as the favourite in a conference they have dominated for nearly two decades thanks to Brady. He’s now 41, but has yet to show any signs of diminished capacity coming off an MVP season.
He’ll have a new-look receiving corps following the off-season departures of Danny Amendola and Cooks, as well as the four-game suspension of Julian Edelman for violating the NFL’s policy on performance enhancers.
Although he’s already secured his place in the Hall of Fame and may possibly end his career as the most accomplished quarterback in league history, Brady reiterated this week in the final installment of his Facebook Watch series Tom vs Time that he wants to play five more seasons.
“I think I can do it,” he said. “It’ll be a challenge for me. I don’t think it’s going to be easy. It’s going to be hard to do. I think it’s going to be very hard to do. But I think I can do it. And once you stop, you’re done. And I think I’m not ready to say I’m done, because I don’t feel like I am.”