Tom Brady threw for 277 yards and three touchdowns, hitting Rob Gronkowski for 123 yards and a score Sunday to lead the defending AFC champion New England Patriots to a 27-20 victory over the Houston Texans.
Brady and Gronkowski, who both floated the possibility of retiring over the offseason, connected seven times, including a 21-yard touchdown three plays after Deshaun Watson fumbled a handoff at the Texans 19 on Houston’s first offensive play. Phillip Dorsett and James White also caught TD passes from Brady, the 41-year-old reigning NFL MVP.
Watson, who missed the final nine games last season with a torn right ACL, completed 17 of 35 passes for 176 yards, one score and one interception. He struggled to move the team in the first 40 minutes, managing just a pair of field-goal drives before Alfred Blue ran it in from 1 yard to make it 24-13 in the last two minutes of the third period.
A muffed punt by New England’s Riley McCarron with under five minutes left set up Watson’s 5-yard TD pass to Bruce Ellington and cut the deficit to 27-20. But after getting the ball back at their 1 with 43 seconds left, the Texans failed to reach midfield.
With Julian Edelman serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy against performance enhancers, Dorsett caught seven passes for 66 yards, including a 4-yard TD pass in the closing seconds of the first half to make it 21-6. White had four receptions for 38 yards, including a 12-yard score.
Lamar Miller ran 20 times for 98 yards for Houston, which welcomed Watson, defensive lineman J.J. Watt and linebacker Whitney Mercilus back from injuries. Watt had two quarterback hurries but was unable to sack Brady.
Instead, it was Watson who felt the pressure.
The second-year quarterback, who threw for 301 yards in a 36-33 loss to New England last year in his second NFL start, botched a handoff with Miller in the first quarter, setting up the Patriots up for their first touchdown. In the second quarter, Watson inexplicably chucked the ball into the end zone for a double-covered Vyncint Smith on a second-and-3 from the New England 42.
Stephon Gilmore brought it down for the interception.
The Patriots also had trouble with turnovers.
Brady had an interception in the first quarter on a throw tipped by defensive lineman Angelo Blackson and brought in by Tyrann Mathieu at the Patriots 17. The Texans went backward 7 yards before Ka’imi Fairbairn’s 42-yard field goal made it 7-3.
Gronkowski also fumbled in the third quarter after a 25-yard reception across the middle. Mathieu recovered, but after advancing to the New England 17, the Texans gave the ball back on downs. The muffed punt by McCarron gave the Texans one last chance.
Texans: DE Christian Covington injured his thigh in the first quarter. T Seantrel Henderson left after getting his left ankle rolled a few plays later. Kevin Johnson left with what the team said was a concussion and did not return.
Patriots: RB Jeremy Hill left with a right knee injury on the Gronkowski fumble in the third quarter.
After the Texans forced New England to punt in the final minute, Ryan Allen landed the ball inside the 5-yard line and Jonathan Jones downed it at the 1. Houston advanced to the 16 on a penalty for leading with the helmet and Watson found DeAndre Hopkins for 14 yards before scrambling for 13 more.
From his 43 with 5 seconds left, Watson chucked the ball as far as the 10 but it was knocked away.
It was the 27th regular-season 100-yard game of Gronkowski’s career, second most for a tight end in NFL history; Tony Gonzalez had 31. But Gronkowski also had four in the postseason, and Gonzalez had none. ... Mathieu is the first Texan with an interception and a fumble recovery in the same game since Tim Dobbins did it in 2012. ... Hopkins has a reception in all 80 games of his career. .. Patriots coach Bill Belichick earned his 251st regular-season win, passing Tom Landry for third on the NFL’s all-time list.
Texans: visit Tennessee Sunday for an early AFC South showdown.
Patriots: visit Jacksonville Sunday in a rematch of the Jan. 21 AFC championship game New England won 24-20 to reach the Super Bowl for the third time in four years.