The season begins for the Texans with a Week 1 contest at New England. The defending AFC Champions won last year's meeting in Week 3 by a 36-33 margin. Kickoff is set for noon CT at Gillette Stadium, and here are five things to watch when Houston takes on the Patriots.
1) Will the wolves get loose?- The Texans front seven is healthy and back at full strength. Defensive end J.J. Watt and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus both saw their 2017 end in Week 5 last year because of injury. Outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney was limited in practice for chunks of training camp.
But that trio should be set for Sunday at New England, and how they and the rest of the defensive front fare against the Patriots' offensive line will be a fascinating part of the game. The New England coaching staff is mindful of the talent up front, and how that talent is moved around to find mismatches.
"Hopefully we keep the wolves at bay," Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said. "They're pretty darn good. When you take a guy like Clowney, and all of a sudden they move him to linebacker behind the line, it's not because they want him to cover, they want him to blitz, and they want him matched up on a back. That's a problem."
The Patriots will likely play a pair of tackles in Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon, who weren't in the starting lineup last year versus Houston.
Clowney thinks the Texans defense can be "very strong" in 2018, and explained how well he and the rest of his teammates play off one another.
"I feed off those guys real good and I've been playing with them for a while, so I kind of understand what they're thinking and how they're thinking," Clowney said. "I think we can real strong together. The group we got together in real, real good and hopefully we can keep together, stay healthy and play for each other."
He scored a touchdown off a Mercilus strip-sack last year at New England, and contributed two sacks to a 5-sack performance from the Texans defense. All told, Tom Brady was hit eight times last year, and the Texans will look to get after him again in similar fashion on Sunday.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski, who caught eight passes for 89 yards and a touchdown in last year's victory, is mightily impressed with the Texans defense.
"They're going to be fierce, they're going to be hungry and we have to come out, we have to be ready to play," Gronkowski said. "They've got great players from the front line to the back and it's going to be a tough matchup."
2) Watson's wisdom- Deshaun Watson is one year older and presumably wiser than the he was the last time these two teams squared off. In just his second NFL start, he lit up the Patriots for 301 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns, with 22 of his 33 throws going for completions.
But when he was asked on Wednesday what his biggest takeaways were from playing New England, he pointed to some things he wasn't able to do.
"Against those guys you can't make too many mistakes," Watson said. "You have to capitalize on redzone points, score touchdowns rather than field goals and be able to play mistake-free as much as you can."
Watson helped guide the Texans to a pair of touchdown drives and four possessions that resulted in a Ka'imi Fairbairn field goal. It was a strong effort for any quarterback, much less a rookie. The growth he's shown since has head coach Bill O'Brien optimistic about 2018 and beyond.
"He learns from everything that he sees," O'Brien said. "He has a short memory. When things go bad, he's able to deal with adversity. He's dealt with adversity his whole life and he's excited to get back out on the field and get going this weekend."
The Texans have scored 30 points or more in Watson's last five starts, a string which began last year in Foxborough.
"We certainly saw him and the rest of the offense move the ball and score a lot of points on us last year," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. "They're much improved on the offensive line, they have playmakers at receiver, tight end, running back – multiple ones – and quarterback. So, we'll have to deal with all of it. I'm sure it'll all be a problem."
3) Speaking of problems- Gronkowski, when he's played a full game against the Texans, has been tough to cover. One of the all-time greats at tight end, his performance last year was a key to the Patriots victory. All-time against the Texans he has 303 receiving yards on 18 catches, with a trio of touchdowns. That's come in four games, but one of those contests was the 2016 victory at Foxborough, when he left because of injury after being targeted one time.
How much he's targeted by Tom Brady will be interesting to watch, as the receiving corps for New England looks quite different versus last year's. Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks are now with the Dolphins and Rams, respectively, and Julian Edelman is suspended.
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel joked Thursday about what he can do to slow down Gronkowski, who's caught 76 touchdowns in his eight NFL seasons.
"Well, I could put about 12 or 13 people on the field," Crennel said. "But that won't work, because they won't allow me to do that."
Instead, Crennel said the Texans must try to "disrupt him as best you can". Cornerback Johnathan Joseph explained that idea further, when he said the Texans must "challenge him each and every play" and not allow him any easy catches.
"You can't give him anything cheap," Joseph said. "You can't give him those run-and-catch plays to where he's making 30 and 40-yard gains."
4) Run it – The Texans picked up 125 yards on 32 carries in last year's loss at New England, as Watson scrambled for 41 of those yards on eight carries, and Lamar Miller picked up another 56 yards on 14 carries.
If those numbers were to rise, the Texans would likely be in better position to pull off a victory.
Miller thinks highly of the Patriots defense, which was fifth-best in the NFL last season, allowing just 18.5 points per game.
"They have a good defense," Miller said. "They're the type of team that won't beat themselves. We've got to go out there and execute and make plays when our number is called."
In Watson's six starts last season, the Texans offense averaged 145.8 yards rushing.
5) Clean on 'teams- For the better part of the past two decades, the Patriots have been strong on special teams. The Texans need to close the gap in that regard Sunday.
This offseason saw quite a bit of change, as Brad Seely was brought in to coordinate the Texans special teams unit, with Tracy Smith as his assistant. The Texans also have a new punter in rookie Trevor Daniel. Picking up the 'hidden yards' on special teams is something to monitor, and O'Brien qualified his thoughts on that side of the ball by saying "the proof will be in the pudding" this Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
"I've seen guys, some veteran players and some younger players, really improve throughout training camp, which is good," O'Brien said. "I like the coaching. I think the coaching has been real good from Brad and Tracy. I'm excited for these guys to be able to get out there and do it. Now, the Patriots, I think the last 15 years in a row, they've been in the top 15 special teams rankings in this league. They are a very, very difficult challenge. They do a great job in all phases of special teams, so it's a big challenge for us starting off the season with them. We need to show up and play well."