Welcome to Season 6, Episode 3 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, often nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup that runs right here every weekend.
The schedule shows that the Patriots began their season a couple of Thursdays ago against the Kansas City Chiefs. But it took Tom Brady and Co. until the second game of the season, and their utterly suspenseless 36-20 victory over the Saints at the Superdome last Sunday, to show up in the dominating form we expected.
That was more like it. And this Sunday should bring another like it. The Patriots try to improve to 2-1 – and earn their first home win of the season after losing their banner-raising opener to the Chiefs – against the Houston Texans.
Am I alone in this, or does it feel like the Patriots have played the Texans in recent years as often as they play an AFC East foe? The teams did meet twice last year. The Patriots beat them 27-0 in Week 3, with the defense pitching a shutout in support of Jacoby Brissett, then bounced them in the divisional round of the playoff in a matchup that was more competitive than the 34-16 score suggests.
While there are many familiar personalities on the Texans’ sideline – Wes Welker and Mike Vrabel are coaches on Bill O’Brien’s staff – the reality is that the teams aren’t that familiar, though the standard outcome is. The Patriots and Texans have met six times since December 2012. The Patriots have won all six, four times by at least 18 points.
The Texans are talented, especially on defense. But they’re no rival. Rivals actually win one once in a while.
Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this one started …
Three players I’ll be watching not named Tom Brady
DeShaun Watson: When his career is complete, Bill Belichick’s success against rookie quarterbacks will be worthy of a couple of lines in one of the chapters in one of the multiple volumes that tell the thorough story of the greatest coach in NFL history. It’s an interesting tidbit, albeit one that makes all the sense in the world. Rookie QBs are 5-15 against Belichick during his career, and their five victories – by the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger (2004), the Jets’ Mark Sanchez (2009), the Browns’ Colt McCoy (2010), the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson (2012), and the Jets’ Geno Smith (2013) – all came on the player’s home field. A rookie QB has never beaten the Patriots in Foxborough during Belichick’s 18 seasons – they’re a combined 0-8.
Anyone who saw Watson play more than a series or two during his career at Clemson knows he is a terrifically talented player, one who is dangerous by air and by land. He also has a reputation as a good kid who carries all of the necessary intangibles to succeed in the NFL. But that success is not coming this week.
Taking on and beating the Bengals – which the Texans did last Thursday, keyed by a Watson 49-yard touchdown run – is a far less daunting challenge than the one he faces Sunday. The Patriots have already seen him up close, during joint practices and a preseason matchup in which he was 3 for 10 for 102 yards. This week they’re going to reveal what they’ve learned. If he has a passing line better than the one Jacoby Brissett had in Week 3 against the Texans last year (11-19, 103 yards, no touchdowns), I’ll be surprised.
J.J. Watt: If Watson becomes, oh, 80 percent of what he is expected to be, he will easily be the greatest quarterback in the Texans’ 16-year history, and I say that with all necessary apologies to six-year starter (and pick-six master) Matt Schaub. But at this point, I’m not sure he’s ready to perform better now than the Texans’ starter the last time they played the Patriots in the AFC divisional playoff round in January. Brock Osweiler went 23 of 40 in that game, with 197 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions. But the game was tight early, and had Will Fuller not dropped a deep ball in the end zone, the Patriots’ 34-16 win might have been tight late too. For now, though, the Texans’ biggest upgrade from then until now is not at quarterback. It’s with the return of Watt, the dynamic pass rusher who played just three games last season due to a back injury. Watt doesn’t have a sack yet this year, but with Marcus Cannon dealing with a concussion and Nate Solder playing inconsistently, there’s a good chance he picks up at least one Sunday. The Texans defense, with Jadeveon Clowney finally hitting his potential last year, was menacing without Watt. With him, it might be the AFC’s best.
Brandin Cooks: For all of the deserved praise of Tony Romo’s performance as color analyst on CBS’s broadcast of last Sunday’s Patriots-Saints game, it was a thought that fell incomplete that stuck with me afterward. While discussing the Saints’ decision to trade productive and popular receiver Brandin Cooks to the Patriots in the offseason, he said this: “If a Drew Brees is letting you go, that tells me there’s a little bit, he might have wanted … [Pause] … You saw it today: when I watched the tape, Cooks and Brady aren’t on the same page yet. Everything isn’t clicking,’’ Romo said.
What did Romo catch himself from saying? What was the little bit? What was wanted? Cooks was a superb receiver for the Saints, averaging 81 catches and 1,155 yards over the past two seasons. Brees had nothing but high praise for him in the buildup to the Patriots game, saying he had nothing but great respect for him and that they were still great friends. But Romo insinuated, accidentally it seems, that something wasn’t quite right. You suspect Brees told him in confidence, don’t you?
Cooks hasn’t quite clicked with Brady yet, either, which is to be expected. Sure, he has five catches for 125 yards on 11 targets through two games, and that’s decent. It’s a 1,000-yard pace. But you can already visualize two or three plays where Brady and Cooks were just a half-step away from connecting on another play, and when it hasn’t worked, the perfectionist quarterback has done his hands-to-the-helmet reaction that certainly can be interpreted as frustration with the receiver. I believe they’re going to be fine. Better than fine, really, since that’s what the Brady-Cooks connection has already been. I’m just curious what the whole story is with Cooks in New Orleans. Romo knows, and he almost accidentally told us.
Grievance of the week
Man, all of the trade speculation about Malcolm Butler is disheartening. I hope it doesn’t happen. I can’t help but think it will.
I hope it doesn’t for the obvious reasons, probably the same reasons you have. He’s been one of the most satisfying out-of-nowhere success stories in the history of Boston sports. His interception in the Super Bowl is one of the great clutch plays in the history of American sports, and that is not hyperbole. He always seemed like a humble, genuine person who appreciated the moment. And he’s been a superb cornerback here, making the Pro Bowl two years ago and All-Pro last year. Quality pass-defenders should be hoarded rather than discarded in the modern NFL. How can you not like Malcolm Butler? I mean, unless you are a Seahawks fan. Then I get why you wouldn’t. He stole your dream and made his own come true. I know there are very few Patriots who play their entire careers here. I hope he’s one of them.
But … we’ve seen this pattern before. A player in his walk year is unhappy with his contract status. Perhaps his performance slips, perhaps it doesn’t, but you begin to notice he’s losing snaps to less-heralded players. This happened to Collins last year, when he was traded to the Browns at the Oct. 31 deadline. That was a shock, and a reminder that there are few Patriots whose jobs are as secure as we believe. Butler, who lost snaps in Week 2 to Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones, seems to be following a similar path. And remember, he was already involved in trade rumors with the Saints during the preseason.
I hope I’m wrong. He’s a wonderful story who persevered and became an outstanding player at a critical position. He’s been nothing but accountable in discussing his frustrating start. I want them to keep him. I don’t believe they will. It won’t be a surprise if they trade him. But it will be a disappointment.
PREDICTION, OR MIKE VRABEL MAY EVENTUALLY BE THE BEST COACH ON BELICHICK’S COACHING TREE: The simplest way of breaking it down? Try this one: DeShaun Watson has started two NFL games. Tom Brady has started seven Super Bowls. Watson may be great someday. Brady may fade away someday. But it won’t be this Sunday. Patriots 35, Texans 10.