Tomorrow night in Foxborough, Mass., in the NFL season opener, the atmosphere should be electric and very emotional when the reigning champions, the New England Patriots, set out to unveil their Super Bowl XLIX championship banner which will be raised prior to the season-opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium.
“It’s going to be electric,” Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman told media. “It’s the opening of the season, and we’re playing against a real good opponent, an explosive opponent, an opponent that has won a lot of ballgames the last few years. It’s going to be an electric environment.”
The Pats will be raising their fourth Super Bowl banner, and it could be an anti-climatic way to start the season since the players have to keep their emotions under control because the Pittsburgeh Steelers would love to cut celebration short by beating the defending champions on their home turf to ‘kick off’ the new year.
“I don’t foresee myself being very emotional,” Pat’s Matthew Slater said. “The focus is going to need to be on playing the Pittsburgh Steelers. If you allow yourself to get caught up in some of that emotion, it can take your focus away from that. It’s obviously a great time to celebrate and it’s great for our fans, but we just need to focus on the game and that’s the biggest thing.”
Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady, spoke with media on Sunday, and admitted that Thursday will be only about beating the Steelers and not relicving last season’s glory.
“It hasn’t happened in a long time,” Brady commented about the upcoming Patriots banner-raising ceremony. “Our guys are excited, but mostly we’ve got to focus on what our job is, and that’s to put that celebration behind us and move forward into a new year because it’s different challenges, different teams, different schedule. Any time you’re in a situation like we’re in, we know that we’re going to get everybody’s best.”
“Last year is last year,” Edelman said. “It was fun. It was great, but it was last year. Everything that happened in the past is not going to help us for this game.”
The Pats will have a lot of motivation after all that went down since last season’s AFC Championship Game win against the Indianapolis Colts and the whole drama surrounding deflated footballs or ‘Deflategate’ [Brady’s four-game suspension was erased last Thursday by a federal judge]. Edelman told media though, there is no rallying cry going into this season.
“There’s plenty of motivation,” Edelman said to reporters. “That’s only one [championship]. There have been teams here that have had a lot. I’m not getting out of hand and say, ‘We’re going for that right now.’ But there are plenty of things to think about that can motivate you, and having a tough opponent come in on Thursday night to start off the NFL season like the Pittsburgh Steelers — a hard-nosed team — if you’re not motivated for that then you must not like football.”
The Patriots offense, on papaer should be able to keep up with Pittsburgh, but they are thin at running back and wide receiver positions which lessens the margin for error to start the season. The Pittsburgh Steelers will be tough to beat, but they won’t have a trio of critical offensive players. Ben Roethlisberger and company will try hard to stretch and challenge the revamped Patriots secondary.
The Steelers who were 11-6 last year, have an even bigger hole in their backfield despite that fact that it’s a temporary one. Le’Veon Bell, a 1000+ yard rusher was suspended two games for a violation of the substance-abuse policy. He caught 83 passes for 854 yards last season which ranked him among the top NFL running backs, so he will be sorely missed.
Receiver Martavis Bryant will also sit out for a month for violating the same substance-abuse policy. And finally All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey will be out until at least November with an ankle injury.
Instead, veteran DeAngelo Williams, former Carolina Panther, recently signed a two-year contract with Pittsburgh, will start at running back.
All this means that the Steelers will rely more heavily on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s performance come Thursday night. He just got a new contract worth close to $100 million in the offseason after giving his best season performance in 2014. So he will look to continue that streak. Star receiver Antonio Brown who has a league-high of rushing 1,698 yards, with 13 TDs, and tight end Heath Miller who rushed for 761 yards, will round out the offense. Pittsburgh averaged 411.1 yards last year which was only 0.3 behind the NFL-leading Saints. So this game could cover the spread.
With that said, historically, coming to Foxborough, hasn’t been lucky for Pittsburgh no matter who has played for them. The Steelers have never beaten Brady at home, losing three times by an average of 20 points, which included a 55-31 beating in their most recent visit, back in November 2013.
The Pats scored at least 30 points in each of Brady’s wins against the Steelers at Foxborough. Overall, New England averaged 458 yards and Brady passed for an average of 375 yards in those games.
“We’re not going to say this is more important than any other game,” Pittsburgh defensive end Cam Heyward told media pregame. “It’s the first game. We’re just looking to put it all together on Thursday.”
This mentality is exactly what the Steelers need, for a team who has the toughest schedule in the league, they will attempt to end a four-year streak without a playoff win with a win on Thursday.
“It’s a hostile environment that truly loves their team,” Heyward said. “We want to be able to go on the road and win games like that, so this is a great test for our team.”
It’s their defense that will get the biggest test, since its problems at Gillette Stadium and the fact that it allowed a mediocre 353.4 yards per game last season. Pittsburgh has tried to remedy the situationd by promoting Keith Butler to replace longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and has quietly urged now-retired veterans Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor to exit.
Butler told media, “We’ve got some good players, there’s no sense in changing most of this stuff. We think there are some adjustments we can make that can help our guys go and be aggressive.”
They’ll need to be super aggressive against the Super Bowl champions tomorrow, whose quarterback’s focus is now on the field and not wasted on sideline distractions.
“It’s time for me to do my job,” Brady said. “Anything that’s happened over the last seven months wasn’t really my job.”
Can Brady deliver? We think it’s easier said than done. It will be a close game.
Our Prediction: Pittsburgh wins, 24-21