FOXBOROUGH – Yes, it was an emotional night for New England.
Another championship banner was unveiled.
Tom Brady was back… even though he never really left.
And Rob Gronkowski was spiking everything in sight.
But it wasn't emotion that led the defending Super Bowl champs to a victory over Pittsburgh on opening night. Sure, that may have helped somewhat, but it was primarily the Steelers' utter inability to cover any of New England's receivers, particularly Gronkowski.
Gronk and Julian Edelman were being left uncovered so frequently Thursday night it was mystifying. The Patriots could have sent almost anyone out for passes and Brady would have found them. Edelman caught 11 of the 12 balls thrown his way, racking up 97 yards. Gronk snagged five of the eight thrown in his direction, three of them for touchdowns. As Edelman said later in the locker room, "He was like an 8th grader taking on 2nd graders."
Yeah, it was that lopsided.
And it's not like Pittsburgh wasn't threatening. New England had no answer for backup running back DeAngelo Williams, subbing for the suspended Le'Veon Bell. Willliams rumbled for 127 yards, the majority of the time going right up the middle of the Patriots defense.
The Steelers offense had plenty of chances to take the lead and failed to convert. Whether it was missed field goals by Josh Scobee, overthrown passes by Ben Roethlisberger, or receivers making fatal mistakes, Pittsburgh has to be heading home thinking they beat themselves more than the Patriots beat them.
Brady certainly flicked the switch and looked in mid-season form after a lackluster preseason. He wouldn't have been able to throw, though, were it not for his o-line giving him time to do so.
Give them credit for keeping Brady relatively safe from the Steelers defense.
I was concerned when I saw the Patriots come out with a rotation in the interior of the offensive line. It gave me flashbacks of last September, when a rotation on the inside was responsible for a troubling amount of Brady sacks. At one point, the Patriots had three rookies at right guard, center, and left guard, but the group held up well for most of the night.
Defensively, I was focusing on Malcolm Butler. The second-year corner, heir to Darrelle Revis at left corner, manned up on Pittsburgh's top receiver, Antonio Brown all night long. Wherever Brown lined up, Butler followed. Initially, Butler was competitive against Brown, but he gave up a few big plays (including a TD in the final seconds) and Brown finished the night with gaudy numbers: 9 catches, 133 yards, and the score.
It was Butler's first time going wire-to-wire as New England's top cornerback, and he was going against one of the NFL's best receivers. Butler was far from perfect, obviously, but this was a good barometer by which Butler can measure where he is and how far he needs to go. For the most part, he was able to stick with Brown and was just a split-second away from making several great plays to break up passes to Brown. This experience should serve Butler well down the road.