Even if the two proud sides might not want to admit it, there are a lot of interesting similarities between the Patriots and Steelers heading into Thursday night's 2015 NFL opener at Gillette Stadium.
Historically, New England and Pittsburgh are the only two franchises to make it to eight Super Bowls. The Steelers have six rings to show for it, the Patriots four after last winter's latest success story that will be celebrated with a banner evening on opening night.
They are led into yet another season by quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl rings. Ben Roethlisberger has two rings in his three trips to the big game, while Tom Brady now has four in his six Super Bowls. Yes, that means Brady and Roethlisberger have combined to appear in a remarkable nine of the last 14 Super Bowls to represent the AFC.
But the similarities don't lie just in the record books, they very much carry over into the makeup of the teams as they embark on another hopeful season.
Each quarterback enters the big opening game leading an offense that has the potential to among the best in the league this fall.
Roethlisberger returns the core of a passing attack that was No. 2 in the NFL last fall. Antonio Brown returns as maybe the best receiver in the game as Big Ben's go-to target, even if the team will have to play without suspended star running back Le'Veon Bell for the first couple weeks.
Brady hits the new year with his comfortable targets in All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski and slot machine Julian Edelman ready to rekindle what was the NFL's No. 4 scoring attack a year ago, a couple spots ahead of Pittsburgh's seventh-ranked unit.
Each QB will also be without his trusted starting center early in the season.
Clearly, both teams and their quarterbacks plan on passing their way to a lot of points this fall in pursuit of another Lombardi Trophy.
But both will only be as good as their offensive lines and complementary defenses allow for.
We know that Brady and Roethlisberger have the talents and weapons to put up a lot of production and points. But will the Patriots and Steelers get the defense and well-rounded play overall needed to be elite in this budding new season?
We may just get a first glimpse at an answer to those questions in this primetime, all-the-world's-a-watching battle on Thursday night from what should be a rocking Gillette Stadium.
As the final hours count down to the Super Bowl XLIX championship banner being unveiled and the Patriots turn the final page to move On to 2015, here are a few key factors worth focusing on as these two bitter AFC rivals look to battle once again:
It's all on the line – With Bryan Stork being placed on injured reserve with the designation to return due to a concussion, the uncertainty of the interior offensive line in New England became even more of a concern. Predicting the three (or more) men who'll hold down the center and two guard spots against the Steelers is a tough question right now. Ryan Wendell will likely start in one of the three roles, probably center, but he may not be ready to play a full football game after missing the entire summer on PUP. Rookie guards Shaq Mason and Tre' Jackson could get the opening nod at guard, as they did throughout the preseason. But each had his ups and downs this summer. If they do continue to be the guys up front, it won't likely be a perfect transition to the regular season in front of Brady. Veteran Josh Kline could also get either a starting nod or at least rotational work early in the season, while undrafted rookie David Andrews is more a longshot but could be in the mix. Regardless, expect the middle of the line to be a concern, and possibly a problem, as was the case last September before Stork and Wendell brought some stability to the front. Pittsburgh doesn't have the most dominant defense or stout interior, but that doesn't mean it won't be a concern for Brady, Josh McDaniels and the entirety of the Patriots offensive attack. Lots of focus will be on the interior line tonight, an area that's generally best served by not being noticed at all.
All-Pro pass catchers –Gronkowski and Brown represent two of the best the NFL has to offer these days at tight end and receiver, respectively. As these teams, and quarterbacks, look to find something to get going early in the year on offense it's easiest to turn to the weapons you are most familiar with. For Brady that's Gronkowski and then Edelman. Gronkowski has a history of lighting up the Steelers. He had three touchdowns on five catches as a rookie. Last time they met his had 143 yards and a score. The All-Pro, All-World tight end should be geared up for a big opener after sitting out the preseason though completely healthy. Gronkowski finally gets to unleash his Gronk beast best one somebody other than his own team's defense. It should be fun to watch. Of course the Steelers have their own All-Pro in Brown, a receiver who can make plays all over the field and turn a short toss into a big play. Clearly he'll be the focal point of a Bell-free Pittsburgh passing attack. He'll also be the focal point of the Patriots defensive game plan. Mix in some rainy conditions and the passing games for Brady and Roethlisberger should be interesting to watch, if not always in midseason precision form.
Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots season opener against the Steelers.
Passing D test? –The D-word was the dominant story in New England all offseason. Of course we're talking about the defense and life after Darrelle Revis. The new-look Patriots secondary will get its first test of the new year against a savvy veteran passer with a couple pretty impressive weapons to turn to, a passer who can shrug off an pass rush the Patriots throw at him. It's not just about talent, technique and skill early in the year, but the new personnel in the secondary for the Patriots will see their most extended playing time together. Personnel groups – we saw New England use a lot of different looks and packages this summer – will be challenged in terms of communication in the pressure of opening night. Even without a couple key weapons, Roethlisberger's attack could be one of the top handful of challenges that Devin McCourty and his unit face this season. That it comes right out of the gates is even more of hurdle for the young, unproven group to overcome. The pass defense can either take an impressive first step tonight or give those doubters even more fuel for their pessimistic, post-Revis fire. By midnight we'll have much more to go on regarding arguably the most dubious aspect of the defending champs' roster.
Butlers' impact – Each of these two teams will have a Butler taking on a new role looking to make a big impact on defense. For New England, that's obviously Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler ascending to the starting left cornerback spot former held down by departed Pro Bowler Revis. Butler enters the spotlight on opening night with the same number of Super Bowl-clinching interceptions on his resume as career starters – 1. He could, at least at times, cross paths with Brown. That's not an easy matchup for anyone, never mind a young, physical corner who at times has struggled with quick, fast guys off the line. Butler certainly won't be on an island, but he'll be very much in the spotlight. Last time he was in that position he made one of the greatest plays in sports history. The pressure isn't a grand in this opener, but he'll still be a potential talk of the game one way or the other. As for the Steelers, they have Keith Butler taking over the coordinator role from Hall of Fame legend Dick LeBeau. Though LeBeau seemed to lose his coaching fastball in recent years, while also not coincidently losing talent to work with, the uncertainty that Butler brings in his promotion from linebackers coach is a key factor for both teams. Belichick and the Patriots may not know quite as well what to expect from the Steelers under a new boss. Mike Tomlin, a former coordinator in his own right, may now inject a few more of his own ideas to the mix. Belichick, McDaniels and Brady may have to adjust on the fly to a few wrinkles that Butler draws up. Regardless, there is a good chance one of the two Butlers will have a big impact.
History lesson – The Patriots have enjoyed plenty of success against Pittsburgh over the Belichick/Brady era. Brady has a 7-2 mark against the Steelers including the postseason, having thrown 20 touchdowns and just three interceptions combined in those games. Gronkowski has been superb in three meetings with the Steelers, notching three touchdowns in five catches as a rookie and four scores overall in the matchup. The Patriots dominated the Steelers on opening day 2002, the opening of Gillette Stadium in a similar energy environment as what will take place Thursday night. History says the Patriots are the bet in this one based on plenty of factors.
Weather or not – The forecast for Foxborough calls for rain and potential thunderstorms Thursdays night. That's not ideal for either passing attack or the fans looking to have a good time. But, Brady is the best bad weather quarterback of all time. He generally shrugs off the rain to continue to throw with success. Now, some will use that as some sort of accusatory statement at this point given what's gone on this offseason, but it's still a fact of life. The Patriots and Brady disregard the elements and perform in them as well as anyone, to the point that they generally embrace bad weather when it hits the practice field. If weather ever gives one team an edge over the other, that team is usually the Patriots.
Jam session – the Steelers have openly talked about trying be physical with Gronkowski, jamming him at the line and keeping him from getting free. The only thing to say to that is – good luck!
Prediction – Brady, the fans and the Patriots will be rocking, even in the rain. The Steelers are without key players in Bell, Martavis Bryant and Maurkice Pouncey. That should limit a bit their potent offense. Expect New England to put up points as the core of offensive weapons gets together for the first time on the field since the Super Bowl. It won't be perfect or easy. But it should be fun. Patriots win, 30-21.
What other things will you be watching for in the NFL opener emanating from Foxborough? Let us know with a comment below!