The New England Patriots begin their title defense on Thursday after a controversy-filled 2015 that included a court battle to reinstate quarterback Tom Brady from a four-game suspension. The Patriots host the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium in a battle of two elite AFC teams, but the pregame conversation remains focused on the Patriots' reputation for cheating.
Brady saw his suspension for “Deflategate” lifted by a federal judge last week, but Tuesday saw a new ESPN report further detailing the cheating scandal “Spygate” from eight years ago, accusing New England of not only videotaping opposing teams’ play-calling signals but of even stealing playbooks and other materials, all under the helm of head coach Bill Belichick.
The report also states NFL commissioner Roger Goodell went after Brady and the Patriots so vehemently over “Deflategate” because owners around the league believed he was too lenient towards Belichick and New England owner Robert Kraft when “Spygate” first emerged in 2007.
New England completely denied any wrongdoing with a statement released Tuesday following the report’s publishing, but Belichick is certain to face more questions in the days leading up to Thursday’s opener against the Steelers.
The game, the first meeting between New England and Pittsburgh in the regular season since 2013, pits two of the AFC’s top championship contenders against each other on primetime television.
Brady and the Patriots are coming off a fourth Super Bowl-title run, capped by the victory over Seattle, and seek to be the first repeat champions since they completed the feat back in 2004.
But New England experienced a lot of roster turnover in the last seven months, most notably in the secondary. The Patriots allowed top cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to walk in free agency, while retaining free safety Devin McCourty and expanding the roles of corners Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler, with Patrick Chung also a holdover from last year’s group.
The Patriots will be facing a limited Steelers’ offense in terms of personnel, but are quite aware of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to make plays.
“One of the hardest things about Pittsburgh, they’re one of the best teams as far as broken plays, and Ben’s ability to be able to get out of some situation,” McCourty told the Boston Herald. “You might think you have a sack, but he’ll make something happen. They have guys who understand what’s going on, and know how to get open. It’s going to be a tough challenge. We’ll definitely have to be ready to go in the secondary to be able to stop him.”
Roethlisberger will miss two important weapons, running back Le’Veon Bell and receiver Martavius Bryant, due to suspensions, but Pittsburgh’s No. 2 ranked passing offense still boasts superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Brown, entering his sixth season, led the NFL with 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns off 129 receptions last year and serves as Roethlisberger’s main threat down the sidelines or underneath. Roethlisberger also led all other quarterbacks with 4,952 yards and 32 touchdowns to only nine interceptions a year ago.
Coming off an 11-5 mark last season that culminated with in a wild-card loss to rival Baltimore, the Steelers enter the season with questions about the secondary. Second-round draft pick and cornerback Senquez Golson is likely out for the season after shoulder surgery, while Cortez Allen is coming off a poor 2014 season that forced Pittsburgh to trade for former Eagle Brandon Boykin and sign Ross Cockrell after he was released by Buffalo, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
With veteran William Gay holding down the other corner, he and Allen will try to contain Patriots receivers Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman.
Betting Odds: New England -7
Over/Under: 52 points
Prediction: New England over Pittsburgh, 24-17