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Stock Watch: Patriots pass opening test

Much of the pre-game analysis of Thursday night's NFL opener at Gillette Stadium revolved around the tale of two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks leading potent offenses against suspect defensive squads on the other side of the ball.

And that's exactly the game that played out, for the most part, on the night that Tom Brady's Patriots unveiled its fourth Super Bowl banner in front of a packed house of rapid fans.

Brady and Roethlisberger each found plenty of open targets against the other's defense, to the point where the duo combined to complete 27 of 34 first-half throws for 338 yards of passing offense. But while Pittsburgh settled for three Josh Scobee field goals – two of which the team's third kicker of the young summer missed wide right – Brady connected on a pair of touchdown throws to go to the locker room with a 14-3 advantage.

When Brady went a perfect four-for-four on the opening drive of the second half, culminating with a 1-yard touchdown throw to Scott Chandler, the New England passing attack created a 21-3 game that Pittsburgh would not be able to claw back into.

At one point into the fourth quarter Brady actually completed a new Patriots franchise-record 19 straight passes against a Steelers defense that somehow managed to lose track of Gronkowski and leave the biggest, best playmaker on the field uncovered on multiple occasions.

In the end the Patriots held tight to the 28-21 victory to open the new season with a big win over a potential playoff team.

The passing game looked like a unit that might just be able to once again carry New England a long way this fall and winter.

The defense, though, looked like a unit that has a lot of work to do moving forward to be a complementary part of a potential championship team.

Sure Roethlisberger's Steelers may just be one of the best offenses in football, but even playing without star running back Le'Veon Bell the Pittsburgh team churned out 464 yards of total offense. DeAngelo Williams rattled off 127 yards on 21 attempts. Antonio Brown had nine catches for 133 yards and a touchdown. It was a struggle on defense for much of the night, even if the visitors couldn't turn it into enough points to pull off the upset, thanks in part to a combination of questionable play calling and solid goal line defense from the home squad.

But neither that nor the rain that hit Foxborough most of the night could put a damper on this opener and this win. There's plenty to work on and plenty to enjoy after a successful, entertaining opener.

As Bill Belichick summed it up afterwards, "It was good enough, and we'll take that."

Given all the production from both teams, here's a look at the personnel highs and lows from the big primetime triumph:

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David Andrews – It's not sexy and the tape may show it was less than perfect, but the undrafted rookie went wire-to-wire at center in his NFL debut. The rest of the offensive line was a fluid situation all night, with Andrews playing next to guards Shaq Mason, Tre' Jackson and Josh Kline at various times. Through it all, he was good enough for Tom Brady and Co. to put up huge numbers. Andrews deserve huge kudos for his first taste of NFL action.

Rob Gronkowski – Rust, what rust? Despite sitting out the preseason, the All-Pro tight end was his dominant self and in midseason form. Somehow the Steelers left Gronkowski uncovered on multiple occasions, allowing him to catch five balls for 92 yards, three of which scored touchdowns. Gronkowski now has a pair of 3-TD games in four career contests against the Steelers. Pittsburgh claimed it was going to jam the world's best tight end. Not only did it fail to do that, but it failed to even cover him. Gronk is on pace for a 48-touchdown season.

Dion Lewis – With LeGarrette Blount suspended, Lewis was the main running back. His Patriots debut included a career-high 15 carries for 69 yards (4.6 avg.) as well as four caches for 51 yards against his former team. Lewis motioned into many five-wide, spread sets early that gave the Steelers defense major problems. He also got more traditional runs in which he showed his elite shiftiness and ability to make people miss. Lewis may not have such a big role every game, but his Patriots debut was supremely impressive.

Tom Brady – Brady was clearly fired up for his first game of the year, first game after his four-game suspension was overturned by a Federal court judge. Despite the rain and against an overmatched Pittsburgh defense, Brady completed 25 of his 32 passes (78 percent) for 288 yards and no interceptions for a 143.8 passer rating. Having not spent any time on the field with the likes of Julian Edelman and Gronkowski since last February's Super Bowl, it didn't seem to matter. Brady was nearly perfect against Pittsburgh, including the stretch of 19 straight completions that set a franchise record. He's now thrown 24 touchdowns comparted to just three interceptions in his career against the Steelers. Wow.

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Dominique Easley – The former first-round pick doesn't land on this list for his play, but for the fact that he had to leave with a hip injury in the first quarter. A year after landing on injured reserve, and two years after his college career was cut short to a torn ACL, seeing Easley gingerly walk off early and not return in the season opener was not a good sign for a guy with high expectations as a potential key cog on the Patriots front.

Jerod Mayo – The captain and veteran linebacker had virtually no role against the Steelers save for special teams and goal line defense. That's not a spot that Mayo has found himself in often if at all when healthy in his New England career. It may be a good sign for the depth of the front seven that Mayo spent most of the night on the sideline, but it's strange to see.

Malcolm Butler – The second-year cornerback made his second career start. He was given a huge challenge, matching up in man coverage with All-Pro Antonio Brown from the first snap. Butler was competitive with the elite competition at times, but he struggled at times. Brown hit for nine catches for 133 yards and a touchdown with a 37-yard long. It's no disgrace to struggle against Brown, but if Butler is going to be the true No. 1 corner for the Patriots he's going to need build on his tough opening night performance because there are plenty of other difficult challenges on the horizon this fall.

Front seven – The group that's supposed to be the heart of the defense and help a new-look secondary just wasn't all that impressive against Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger had a lot of time too often to find receivers down the field. Williams ran at will from the very beginning and churned out too many yards on the ground. The defensive line and linebackers have plenty to work on after this one.

What do you think of our list of superlatives from the big opening night win? Let us know with a comment below!

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