The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers kick off the NFL season on Thursday night in a game between two of the most storied franchises in league history. The Steelers have an NFL-best six Lombardi Trophies while the Patriots will be raising their fourth banner before the game.
The two have also had one of the better AFC rivalries over the last decade, meeting twice in the AFC Championship Game with New England coming out on top both times back in 2001 and '04. In their last three meetings the teams have gone back and forth, with the Pats getting decisive victories in 2010 and '13, and the Steelers handing the Pats their worst loss of the year in 2011.
Both teams feature explosive offenses and defenses that will be looking to re-establish themselves after considerable turnover.
The season opener always delivers and this one should be no exception.
Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Patriots -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Antonio Brown vs. New Patriots Cornerbacks
The Steelers have the most explosive wide receiver in the game in Brown and his ability to stretch a defense with his speed is something the Patriots must be wary of. Over the last five seasons no one has given up more 20+ passing plays than the Pats. Even in 2014, with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner at the corners, they gave up the third-most 20+ passes with 62. So there should be big plays there for the Steelers if Ben Roethlisberger has time to throw downfield.
Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler is likely to match up on Brown, but exactly how the Patriots use their new corners is unknown. With Matavis Bryant and Le'Veon Bell sitting this one out due to suspension, the Patriots will devote as many resources necessary to take away Brown. It's what they do — force teams to beat them without their best punch, and there's no doubt Brown is the Steelers' best punch. Whether or not New England can execute that plan with its current personnel will be a direct reflection on an offseason do-over at cornerback.
2. Gronk Problems
In three career games against the Steelers, Rob Gronkowski has 21 catches for 409 yards and four touchdowns. There's no secret, Gronkowski is the Patriots' most potent weapon and one that the Steelers must come up with a plan for. Their job is a bit easier without outside target Brandon LaFell, but it's the big tight end who can do the most damage. Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier said it's all about getting a jam on Gronkowski, but that's something easier game planned than executed. The Patriots have traditionally attacked the Steelers' defense by spreading them out and throwing all over the place, but the biggest key is Gronkowski, a task not made any easier by the addition of fellow tall tight end Scott Chandler. With an unproven offensive backfield, the Steelers should look to force Tom Brady to handoff as much as possible while putting multiple defenders on Gronkowski.
The first game of the NFL season is rarely indicative of how good either team will be at the end of the year. They are sloppy affairs with missed tackles, bad turnovers and generally bad football. With the new league rules to limit the amount of tackling in training camp, it only exacerbates the problems we see in the first few weeks of the season. The Patriots know this as well as anyone as their recent Septembers include losses and closer-than-anticipated wins over teams like the Cardinals, Bills and Chiefs. Special teams will be a huge key and an area where the game could turn on a dime. Whichever team can play the more "clean" game, will likely be the one that wins.
The Patriots are always tough to beat at home and with Brady in the lineup after having his suspension vacated the team will be fired up and the environment will be hostile for the Steelers. Pittsburgh has never beaten Brady at home so it's a tough time to pick them to do so now. New England's weakness could be along the interior of the offensive line where we're still unsure who will start, though it will be at least one rookie and very possibly two at the guard spots. Pittsburgh must attack there and force turnovers. The Patriots still have enough weapons to attack the Steelers like they have in the past when Dick LeBeau was the defensive coordinator. Will the Steelers learn from those past game plans and shift their thinking? It could be just enough to gain the edge they need. This one will be ugly at times but the Patriots should have enough to squeak out the win.