For the Houston Texans, who open the 2018 campaign on Sunday against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium, their cause for confidence is rooted in something more than blind faith.
Their defense, ravaged by injuries during a dismal 4-12 season in 2017, has been reborn with healthy, talented contributors and reinforced with newcomers primed to make an impact.
Atop the former list is end J.J. Watt, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year whose last two campaigns have been aborted by catastrophic maladies. Watt broke his left leg in Week 5 against Kansas City, his season-ending surgery capping the number of games Watt played over the 2016-17 seasons at eight. Watt did not miss a start over his first five seasons in the league. His health concerns have raised doubts over his ability to return to form.
“I’m sure there are a lot of people who are cautiously optimistic,” said Watt, limited to three games in 2016 following back surgeries. “Obviously the last two years we’ve said the same thing. So, I’m just looking forward to going out there and playing football, letting it loose, having fun and letting the chips fall where they may.
“It’s been a long road, it’s been a grind, it’s been a lot of ups and downs over the last couple of years, obviously. But, I love this game, I love my teammates, I love these guys and I love coming to work every day.”
Also back for the Texans are outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, who tore his pectoral muscle in Week 5, and defensive tackle Christian Covington, sidelined the final nine games following a biceps injury. In the offseason, the Texans added a pair of veterans in safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Aaron Colvin to their secondary, as well as promising rookie safety Justin Reid. The Texans allowed an NFL-high 27.3 points per game in 2017. If they maintain health, there is every reason to expect that average to drop precipitously this season.
The Patriots are making their most noteworthy adjustments on offense.
In the offseason, New England moved on from running backs Dion Lewis (Tennessee Titans) and Mike Gillislee (New Orleans Saints), who finished first and second on the team in rushing yards, as well as receivers Brandin Cooks (Los Angeles Rams) and Danny Amendola (Miami Dolphins), who were second and third in receiving yards in 2017. Purported No. 1 wideout Julian Edelman’s return in 2018 from a season-ending knee injury was delayed by a four-game suspension.
However, stability reigns in New England with coach Bill Belichick and three-time MVP Tom Brady at quarterback, whose ceaseless excellence and productivity defy all explanation.
“I mean, it is amazing, definitely,” Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said of Brady. “But, to tell you the truth, I’ve seen it now for eight years and I see what he does. It’s amazing how he’s doing it, but also it doesn’t amaze me at the same time anymore because he’s doing everything right. Therefore, he should be playing at this level and therefore that’s why he is. So, that just makes him that much more great.”
New England also has a new look on defense.
Coordinator Matt Patricia became head coach of the Detroit Lions, and Belichick will be more hands-on with a unit that survived a bend-don’t-break mentality all the way to the Super Bowl.
The first test for this group is against second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson and All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Watson nearly led the Texans to a victory over the Patriots in 2017, only to fall to Brady’s Patriots on the final drive.
“I just knew from the time that he arrived here that he had really good poise, very smart guy,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “This guy had beaten Alabama in the national championship game in front of 100,000 people on national television and almost did it the year before if I’m correct. I don’t think there was ever going to be any stage too big for him. That’s what we’ve seen. ... He learns from everything he sees.”
—Field Level Media