Are Texans for real? Week 1 vs. Patriots an early litmus test

HOUSTON -- Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien is quick to point out that every game means the same during the regular season, regardless of the opponent.

But this season, his team opens up on the road against the reigning AFC champion New England Patriots (1 p.m. ET, CBS). It isn't an ordinary season opener. It's an early test to see where the Texans stand as they enter the 2018 season.

Houston has not beaten the Patriots since the regular-season finale in 2009 (0-7 since) and has never won at Gillette Stadium. An early victory against New England would show the league that this Texans team not only can compete for a playoff spot, but it can be among the best in the AFC.

"Anytime you can open a season against a quality opponent, a playoff opponent, you want to be prepared," safety Tyrann Mathieu said. "A lot of people are watching. It's Week 1, but it's a really important game.

"Obviously, we're both AFC teams, so a lot of times, playing in these early games [determines] a lot of things down the line."

This will be the fourth time the AFC foes have played in the past three seasons. Last season's 36-33 defeat was the first time in a while that the game was much of a contest -- the two meetings in 2016 were won handily by New England.

"I haven't beaten them since I've been here," wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins said. "Personally, I'm going to have a chip on my shoulder, but I think it's bigger than that. I think this team, we need that win to get to where we want to get."

Last season against New England, although the Texans lost, quarterback Deshaun Watson threw for 301 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. It was a huge game that showcased the potential of Houston's young quarterback, who put his team in position to win before Tom Brady beat the Texans' defense and gave New England the lead with 23 seconds to go.

That game was Watson's second NFL start, and as O'Brien -- and the rest of the league -- learned last season, that big stage didn't bother the rookie quarterback.

"I just knew from the time that he arrived here that he had really good poise," O'Brien said. "I mean, this guy had beaten Alabama in a national championship game in front of 100,000 people on national television and almost did it the year before.

"So I don't think there was ever going to be a stage too big for him, and that's what we've seen."

Watson has watched the tape from last season's loss plenty of times, and he said it wasn't the two touchdowns or the 301 yards that stand out to him. Instead, he says he remembers that he and the offense "had the opportunity to put the game away and we didn't."

"We left too much time for Tom Brady," Watson said. "The interception I threw early on in the game ... that was pretty much it. I was aiming for the win."

For the Texans to get that win this season, it will depend not only on the health of Watson but of the defense coming together to stop Brady.

Sunday will be the first game back for defensive end J.J. Watt (broken leg) and linebacker Whitney Mercilus (torn pectoral muscle) after they both suffered season-ending injuries in Week 5 against the Chiefs last season. The Texans begin the season with a healthy trio of Watt, Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney. They hope that group is a big difference in getting this season off to a good start.

"I think it will be important to us to get this win early on," Mathieu said. "We know the significance of it, so we've just got to be prepared and ready to go on Sunday."