FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — 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’ offense 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 revamped defense, 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 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 favorite 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 offseason 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.
Though 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.”
Here are some other things to know about Sunday’s matchup between the Texans and Patriots:
CLOWNEY COMING: After having the best season of his career in 2017, Jadeveon Clowney is looking to do even more this year as part of a line that also features Watt.
The top overall pick in the 2014 draft finished last year second in the NFL with a career-high 21 tackles for losses, and his 9 1/2 sacks, 21 quarterback hits and two forced fumbles were also career bests. He started all 16 games for the first time after struggling with injuries through the early part of his career, and his 59 tackles in 2017 were the most of his career.
“My goal is to make more plays than I did last year … improving my sacks and tackles for loss and everything,” he said. “I just want to do that again. With everybody back this year the sky’s the limit for this defense and myself. I just have to come out and put it all together.”
SPOTLESS RECORD: Houston is one of four teams New England has an undefeated regular-season home record against (4-0). The Patriots are 5-0 against Baltimore, 4-0 against Chicago and 4-0 against Jacksonville.
The Patriots also have won the last five regular-season meetings with the Texans overall.
HAVING HIS WAY: Aside from his late-game heroics last season, Brady has been equally steady against the Texans during his career. He has an 8-1 record against Houston, passing for 22 touchdowns and 2,565 yards (regular season and playoffs).
CONTAINING WATSON: Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower will be playing in his first regular-season game since suffering a season-ending shoulder injury last October. He said he’s excited about the challenge of trying to contain Watson, who had his way with the Patriots in their meeting last season, passing for 301 yards and two touchdowns. Hightower said putting pressure on Watson early will be key to trying to slow him down.
“I think that’s the biggest thing … just not letting those guys get comfortable inside the pocket,” Hightower said. “Hopefully we’ll do a good job this week containing him in the run and pass game.”
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