Though it may not have been 100 years in the making like Thursday night’s NFL opener between the Bears and the Packers in Chicago, Sunday night’s battle between the Patriots and Steelers at Gillette Stadium actually offers more star power, more Super Bowl rings and more future Hall of Fame talent.
Only these two NFL franchises have secured six Super Bowl rings – New England will unveil its sixth championship banner before the game -- and their pursuit of No. 7 kicks off against each other in Foxborough.
Leading that pursuit are aging mainstay quarterbacks and longtime rivals in New England’s Tom Brady and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger. Brady is 11-3 in his career against Pittsburgh, including postseason action, while Roethlisberger is just 4-8 against the Patriots.
And as frequent AFC rivals – both in the regular season and the playoffs – Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin have become familiar foes over the years. Belichick has an 11-4 record leading the Patriots against the Steelers, while Tomlin is just 3-7 against New England.
A lot has changed since the teams last met last December – a Steelers 17-10 win in Pittsburgh – with problem child All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown having been shipped out of town and All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski now retired.
But there is still plenty of talent on both sides of the ball for both teams, creating great anticipation for opening night.
“Obviously, all of our attention is focused on Pittsburgh. Good football team,” Belichick said this week. “I have a lot of respect for the organization. Coach Tomlin, the coaching staff, the players, team, they compete hard, they're tough. They're a good football team, they're strong in all three phases of the game. They challenge you pretty much on every play, so we'll have to be ready to go 60 minutes, go all the way, go toe-to-toe with them. It'll be good to get started, but these guys do a good job. They're a tough team to prepare for, a tough team to play against.”
As the first game of the season, there is also plenty of unknown for both teams as they begin to build their identity for this season, rather than simply live off past successes.
“We've had a great rivalry against those guys and played a lot of meaningful games,” Brady said as he prepared for Pittsburgh. “They're a great football team, they have a great history. One of the best defenses, still to this day, in the history of the league. Big Ben, what he's continued to do and how that offense has evolved over time. I have a lot of respect for Coach Tomlin, how he coaches and what he demands out of his players. They've got a great defensive front, they play extremely hard, great group of linebackers, a talented secondary. Very difficult team to play against, they stress you in a lot of areas. We've got to be at the top of our game early in the season, as do they, which makes it a great matchup.”
As you wind down the work week and begin to build excitement toward Sunday night, here’s a Friday 6-pack preview of this big season-opening matchup in the AFC.
All on the line – The Patriots will have two new starters on opening night with second-year former first-round pick Isaiah Wynn making his NFL debut at left tackle and fourth-year veteran backup Ted Karras likely stepping in for David Andrews at center. Those may be the two most important spot on the offensive line as it prepares to face a talented, versatile, challenging Pittsburgh front. In many ways, both in terms of communication and execution, the Patriots chances for victory could rest on the offensive line and the way that legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is able to coach ‘em up. From protecting Brady to creating room for the running backs the line has its work cut out against the likes of Cameron Hayward, T.J. Watt (13 of Pittsburgh’s 52 sacks a year ago) and the rest of the Steelers front. This battle could very well decide the game.
Matching up with JuJu – With Brown gone, JuJu Smith-Schuster is now the clear No. 1 target in Pittsburgh. The third-year receiver finished fifth in the NFL in receiving yards last fall, but he may find the going a bit tougher this fall without Brown drawing the attention of opposing defenses. J.C. Jackson did a very anti-Patriots thing this week by saying he didn’t think JuJu was one of the best receivers in the NFL. Now the question is how the Patriots deal with the Steelers No. 1 option. Does Jackson get a chance to prove his words correct with some safety help over the top? Or, would Belichick go all-in and use Stephon Gilmore in a 1 v. 1 battle? JuJu has something to prove this week and this season. The same can be said about the Patriots defense.
On their backs – The Patriots offense, especially the passing game, may be a work in progress as the season opens against a very solid defense. (That certainly was the case for the Bears and Packers on Thursday night in Chicago.) While Brady may need time to build his rapport with Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas after limited time working with the trio this summer, there is little question that New England has a deep group of running backs ready to contribute. Sony Michel closed out last season carrying the load on the way to a Lombardi Trophy. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Josh McDaniels lean on the ground game in this opener. The running backs – obviously led by James White who may be asked to do even more in 2019 according to position coach Ivan Fears – also appear ready to contribute to the passing game as much as ever. Both coaches talked about relying on what you do best on opening night, which for the Patriots may mean leaning on the backfield.
Combo No. 1 – Whether it’s Week 1 or the Super Bowl, NFL action often comes down to key plays made by quarterbacks and key decisions made by coaches. Both would seem to be an area of significant advantage for the Patriots. Brady is simply better, more consistent and more proven with the game on the line than Roethlisberger. Belichick may have more on his plate given the almost complete turnover on his defensive coaching staff, but he’s still more trusted at key times in big games than Tomlin. It is what it is. If this battle comes down to QB play or coaching decisions, that has to favor the greatest coach/QB combo in NFL history.
Opening night specials – The Patriots will have a rookie at both punter and holder with fifth-round pick Jake Bailey having taken over for Ryan Allen. There is also a chance that undrafted rookie Gunner Olszewski handles return duties, at least on punts. That’s a lot of youthful inexperience for the home squad in a primetime environment, even in front of a friendly crowd. Season openers often include big plays, often in the kicking game. Those can come from solid execution or unfortunate mistakes. There will also be a lot of new faces throughout the special teams units on both squads. In what could set up as a competitive, tight game one key play or mistake on special teams might just be the difference.
Prediction – Gillette and the Foxborough faithful should be electric. The unveiling of the latest Super Bowl banner will ignite the night. It should create an advantage for the home squad, even more so than usual. The Patriots defense has a chance to prove itself after a summer of hype. Pittsburgh’s new age Steel Curtain has a chance to display its own mettle. The most productive, frequent passing attack in the NFL a year ago, the Steelers have to prove exactly what they are without Brown. Brady and Co. likely won’t roll out of the gates as a high-flying unit. Put it all together and look for New England to run the ball and show its depth, talent and versatility on defense. It may not be quite the 13-3 score last we saw the Patriots in Super Bowl LII, but look for something in the range of a 20-13 victory for the home squad as two would-be AFC contenders open up with a tough, tight fight to the finish.