FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Tom Brady didn't have any trouble finding receivers to throw to in the New England Patriots' opener.
The reigning NFL MVP completed passes to eight players in a 27-20 victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday, connecting with Rob Gronkowski and Phillip Dorsett for seven receptions and a touchdown apiece.
"We try to spread it around quite a bit," said Brady, who was 26 of 39 for 277 yards and three scores. "If you're out there, I trust you, the coaches trust you, the team trusts you. That's why we're putting you out there."
After losing Danny Amendola to free agency and Julian Edelman to a four-game suspension, the Patriots were expected to be hobbled by a lack of targets for the three-time NFL MVP. This year's corps was being compared to the one in 2006, when Reche Caldwell led the team with 63 receptions (and caught only 15 more the rest of his career).
Brady hit Gronkowski for 123 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown three plays after Deshaun Watson fumbled a handoff at the Texans 19 on Houston's first offensive play . They also connected on a 28-yard pass during a 2-minute drill that left the Patriots with a 21-6 halftime lead.
"It's very important that they came out and played the way they did. They're our leaders," said Dorsett, who had 66 receiving yards, including a 4-yard score. "When they play well, they give an adrenaline boost to the rest of the team."
It was Gronkowski's 31st career regular-season or playoff game of 100 yards or more, tying Tony Gonzalez's NFL record.
"We've been playing together for a long time," Brady said. "I know his body language. I know his ability to run and what routes. He can do it. He can do really all the routes. It's just a matter of giving him a chance, and it came with a big touchdown today."
The 41-year-old quarterback also found James White for a touchdown; he also had an interception on a pass that was tipped at the line of scrimmage. Texans quarterback Deshaun 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.
Watson 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. Lamar Miller ran 20 times for 98 yards for Houston.
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.
BACK FROM INJURIES
Watson, defensive lineman J.J. Watt and linebacker Whitney Mercilus returned after finishing 2017 on injured reserve. Watt had two quarterback hurries, but D.J. Reader had the only two sacks of Brady, both late.
"It's good to play a full game to know it lasts, to know it holds up," said Watt, a three-time defensive player of the year. "I didn't think about it once. So, that's all you can ask for."
Watson, 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 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.
"I think it was terrible, on my part," Watson said. "I just feel like you can put the 'L' on me."
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.
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