The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers are in a class of their own among NFL teams. They’re the only teams with six Super Bowl titles apiece; eight of those have been won in the last 18 years. Current quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady are first-ballot Hall of Famers; the latter might be the best signal-caller of all time.
Pitting these two AFC franchises together, with their great histories, is the perfect way to start off the NFL’s 100th season on "Sunday Night Football" as the Patriots launch their Super Bowl title defense. The only issue: A rivalry that should be one of the sport’s epic battles has become completely one-sided in recent years. The Steelers’ win last December was just their fourth against the Patriots in their past 15 games; they’re 0-3 all-time versus the Pats and Bill Belichick in the AFC Championship Game.
A flurry of offseason departures didn’t help the Steelers’ case for this weekend. Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown signed with the Raiders; star running back Le’Veon Bell found his way to the Jets after a yearlong holdout. The offense has gotten younger and has a whole new look based around receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, tight end Vance McDonald and running back James Conner.
But the Patriots have their own set of changes to deal with. Tom Brady, now 42 years old, will try to defy Father Time without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who retired this offseason. Longtime target Julian Edelman remains as perhaps the lone reliable target as the Patriots reinvent themselves yet again after one of their more surprising Super Bowl runs.
Can the Steelers somehow find a way? We’ll soon find out.
Pittsburgh at New England
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 8 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -5.5
Three Things To Watch
1. Who else can these star quarterbacks throw the ball to?
Roethlisberger and Brady helm rebuilding offenses with ever-changing pieces. But no one may need a bigger transformation than the Steelers after losing Brown. Their star wide receiver had six straight 1,000-yard seasons, scoring 67 touchdowns during that stretch while making the Pro Bowl every one of those years. Most importantly, he missed just four games, showcasing durability in a league where injuries continue to pile up.
But make no mistake; within the Steelers locker room, there also appears to be a sigh of relief. The dramatic fallout of Brown’s departure, well documented here, has freed Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin to take better control of the offense. Brown's antics haven’t stopped, either; as he had a heated encounter at practice earlier this week with Raiders GM Mike Mayock that led to reports of the team considering suspending him, which would have jeopardized the guaranteed money in Brown's contract. Brown issued a "heartfelt" apology to his teammates on Friday but will that be enough?
As for Roethlisberger, his options to throw to now start with Smith-Schuster, facing high expectations after the first Pro Bowl appearance of his career (111 receptions, 1,426 yards). The third-year player actually outpaced Brown in both categories last season, and people feel he’s capable of growing into his newly minted superstar label — although it comes with its own set of challenges. “It’s going to be hard to sleep at night trying to find ways to get open,” Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen said in a recent interview when asked about the pressure of being the undisputed No. 1 receiver. “Different routes, different coverages you’ve got to look at. Double teams, double pressures... the whole game changes.”
Roethlisberger, then, will need to rely on offseason pickup Donte Moncrief to pick up the slack. But Moncrief has never caught more than 64 passes in a season during his five-year career; he slumped to just 48 catches in 16 games with the lackluster Jaguars offense last season. Tight end Vance McDonald will likely be the better choice; he caught three TD passes and posted consistent production in the team’s final eight games. Wide receiver Ryan Switzer (36 catches last year) should also factor into the mix.
Brady and the Patriots have less of a transition; they’re used to losing Gronkowski to injuries for long periods of time. But Edelman has a history of getting bruised up himself, and he's already nursing a broken thumb heading into Week 1. (He says he’s just fine.) Either way, like Smith-Schuster, the amount of double coverage and increased focus on Edelman by the defense could limit his production early while other options take time to develop.
Those options will likely include the backfield. It’s not just Sony Michel; change-of-pace back James White caught a team-high 87 passes last season and had seven TD catches. Second-round draft pick Damien Harris is expected to rotate in the mix along with reliable veteran Rex Burkhead. Wide receiver-wise, veteran pickup Demaryius Thomas (80-plus catches six straight seasons before a weird 2018 that involved him getting traded) could be Brady’s latest reclamation project.
Then, there’s the wild card for the AFC East juggernaut: Josh Gordon. Gordon was recently reinstated by the NFL once again after another brush with substance abuse (Belichick is noncommittal to his status in the season opener but, after playing in the preseason finale, Gordon seems likely to suit up). The Pro Bowl receiver’s downfall last season came just as he was hitting his stride with Brady; he had three games with 95 yards receiving or more over his final eight appearances. The speed is still there for a former Pro Bowl player who, at age 28, could be the spark to lead this team on another run deep in the playoffs
2. Which means... it’s all about the running backs
Offensive transitions mean Sunday night’s focus might come off the star quarterbacks for once. Conner had a Pro Bowl season for the Steelers in 2018, singlehandedly running Bell out of town with a 975-yard, 12-touchdown season on the ground. His 55 catches also showcased his versatility. But honestly? In 2019, the Steelers are going to need more. Can Conner establish himself as an Ezekiel Elliott-like, franchise-changing player? His longest run, notably, was just 30 yards, and his per-carry average (4.5) was tied for 14th in the AFC.
Conner was tied in that category with Sony Michel, the Patriots’ rookie sensation who is seeking continuity in his second season. Michel stamped himself as irreplaceable during a memorable postseason run; he ran for 336 yards in three games and scored six touchdowns, including the only one of Super Bowl LIII’s 10-3 squeaker over the Rams. The surge followed an inconsistent end to the regular season that included only one 100-yard performance in the final five games (Michel had just 59 yards in last December’s loss to the Steelers). Which player will show up to start 2019?
Brady’s age (at some point, Father Time has to catch up... right?) and offensive options in flux mean that Michel needs to become a lynchpin of the Patriots offense. John Elway will be the first to tell you he succeeded late in his career because of the exceptional running of Terrell Davis that kept defenses guessing. Can Michel be that type of player in a team-based, spread-the-ball system?
3. Defense, defense, defense
The last time these teams met, just 27 points were scored as the defenses took center stage. Expect a similar statement Sunday night; as Thursday night’s NFL opener showed (a 10-3 sloppy Green Bay Packers win against the Chicago Bears), a lack of preseason playing time tends to affect NFL offenses early in the year.
For the Steelers, the key is forcing late-game turnovers and finding a way to fluster Brady. A top-10 defense in rush yards allowed and several other categories, the Steelers defense had just 15 takeaways in 2018; only the lowly Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers had fewer. But a crucial interception of Brady in the fourth quarter last December helped preserve their 17-10 victory. A similar momentum-changing play will make the difference against a Patriots team that struggled on the road last season (3-5) before their postseason renaissance.
The Patriots, meanwhile, will need to find a way to stop Conner; he missed December’s contest with a sprained ankle. However, replacement Jaylen Samuels ran for 142 yards (7.5 per carry), torching a defense that allowed 100+ yards rushing three times in their final four regular-season games.
At least they got it together in the end (just 122 rushing yards total allowed during three postseason contests). That’s crucial momentum the Patriots must carry over into Heinz Field Sunday night.
Critics are already doubting the Patriots' ability to win another one. Tom Brady at 42? Edelman injured again? Safety Patrick Chung caught with cocaine? It’s the type of environment Belichick always capitalizes on for his team to make an early-season statement.
I think the Steelers are being overlooked and will be a scary team in the AFC North as the season progresses. It just won’t be Week 1, while they work out the kinks in real time against a rival who always has their number.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Steelers 10
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.