New vs. old - which quarterback will prevail?
The New England Patriots and Houston Texans were almost at opposite ends of the win column in 2017. At 13-3, the Patriots were tied for having the best regular season record in the NFL. They finished as AFC champions and came close to adding a sixth Super Bowl under Bill Belichick. The Texans, on the other hand, were near the bottom after going 4-12.
It's a slow process, but the two teams could be headed in opposite directions in 2018. The perfect representation as to why that's a possibility is the quarterback situation for both teams. After years of success, Tom Brady is now 41 years old. He's still playing at a high level, of course, but it should be noted. Deshaun Watson is almost half Brady's age. He won't turn 23 until Sept. 22. Diving into each team's roster, the quarterback position isn't the only spot that features a significant age gap.
According to Jimmy Kempski with PhillyVoice, the Texans' roster averages 25.6 years old (No. 7 in the NFL). Where do the Patriots rank? With an average age of 26.8, they rank near the bottom (No. 30). It may not seem like a major gap, but as Kempski points out, that difference over 53 players is significant.
That could mean a closing Super Bowl window for one team, while the other is on the rise. That's great news for Houston's future, but will it really matter in Sunday's game?
Houston at New England
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 9 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Deshaun Watson-DeAndre Hopkins: Picking up where they left off
Hopkins (right) only got to play seven games with Watson last season. In those seven games, the former Clemson standouts were phenomenal. Hopkins hauled in 45 receptions for 606 yards and seven touchdowns. Granted, Hopkins was equally as good with Tom Savage under center (51 receptions, 772 yards, six touchdowns in eight games), but the chemistry with Watson is obvious.
The question will be whether or not Watson is comfortable in his first regular reason game back after tearing his ACL 10 months ago. Bill O'Brien has made sure to ease him back into things, which means we aren't entirely sure what to expect. Either way, the Texans will need Watson and Hopkins at their absolute best if they want a chance of knocking off the Patriots.
2. Will the Patriots have another slow start to the season?
Overall, New England has come out of the gate strong under Bill Belichick. They're 13-5 (.722) in opening games dating back to 2000. That stretch also includes a 10-year winning streak from 2004-13. With that said, they're 2-2 over the last four years, and the win gap for those two victories has only gotten smaller (average of 4.5 points).
Last season, the Patriots opened up with a home game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Through three quarters, everything seemed to be on track. It wasn't until a 21-point meltdown in the fourth quarter that things got out of hand. The end result was a 42-27 defeat, making it the second-worst opening game loss during the Belichick era.
One may try to point to home-field advantage as a potential culprit, but New England was the road team in that matchup. From there, they only lost two more games in the regular season.
3. Who does a better job protecting the quarterback?
Each team's defensive line will have a sizable advantage over the other's offensive line come Sunday. The Patriots lost long-time left tackle Nate Solder to the New York Giants in free agency, and then proceeded to lose first-round pick Isaiah Wynn to a torn Achilles back in August. As if that wasn't enough, starting right tackle Marcus Cannon has also been dealing with a lower leg injury.
While New England was losing offensive linemen in free agency, the Texans were adding them. They started shoring things up by signing Seantrel Henderson, Zach Fulton and Senio Kelemete in free agency. They, they decided to add Mississippi State's Martinas Rankin in the third round of this year's draft. The group looks improved, but we still don't know have any certainty of their effectiveness.
The defensive fronts are the exact opposite. Both teams feature a deep rotation with massive potential. The Texans may have more recognizable names (J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, etc.), but don't underestimate players like Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown or Adrian Clayborn. Versatile linebacker Dont'a Hightower will also be back after suffering a torn pectoral muscle five games into the 2017 season.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see New England jump out to an early lead. Deshaun Watson is going to need some time to fully knock off the rust while Tom Brady and company will be eager to remove any concern about a Super Bowl hangover.
Once the Texans get things going, this game could get interesting. There's a lot to like about a Texans defense that includes playmakers such as J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Tyrann Mathieu. If they can exploit the Patriots' questionable offensive line, it may be enough to prevent New England from covering the spread.
In the end, it won't mean much in the win column, however. A Brady-Belichick combination at home will prove to be too much for a Texans team that's still going through some growing pains. The streak of losses at Gillette Stadium (they've never won there) will continue for Houston.
Prediction: Patriots 34, Texans 28
— Written by Clint Lamb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ClintRLamb.