By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Even when the previous season extends as long as possible, the NFL offseason sure is long. Fortunately, it's over.
And though the defending champs had to wait a few extra days for their banner unveiling and season kickoff, it'll all be worth it when the 68,000 fans packed into Gillette get themselves to Pete Carroll levels of pumped and jacked for the grand festivities.
Alas, once the smoke from the fireworks clear, and once the ball is placed on the tee, it will be time for some real-deal football in Foxboro. Here's what to expect when the Steelers and Patriots get going on Sunday evening.
CAN BRADY'S DOMINANCE LAST ... FOREVER?
We know that Tom Brady and the Patriots lost the Steelers in Pittsburgh last December. That happened. But when it comes to these two teams meeting in Foxboro? The results have been comical when Tom Brady's taken the field.
No matter whether the defenses were being run by Tim Lewis, Dick LeBeau, or Keith Butler, Brady has diced and sliced and flat-out stomped on the Pittsburgh defense in his five career home games against the Steelers.
Week 1, 2002
29-for-43 (67.4%), 294 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs, 110.0 rating
Week 14, 2007
32-for-46 (69.6%), 399 yards, 4 TDs. 0 INTs, 125.2 rating
Week 9, 2013
23-for-33 (69.7%), 432 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, 151.8 rating
Week 1, 2015
25-for-32 (78.1%), 288 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, 143.7 rating
2016 AFC Championship
32-for-42 (76.2%), 384 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs, 127.5 rating
Add it all up, and you get:
Tom Brady vs. Steelers in Foxboro
141-for-196 (71.9%), 1,797 yards, 18 TDs, 0 INTs, 130.8 rating
On a per-game basis, that's:
28-for-39, 359 yards, 3.6 TDs, 0 INTs
Obviously, the cast of characters on both rosters has changed significantly over the 17-year window we're looking at. But when it comes to Brady vs. the Steelers in Foxboro, the results have all been the same. (The Patriots are obviously 5-0 in those games, winning by an average score of 37-19.)
Might that run actually ... end at some point? Or will Brady do it until he's 60? We should be able to know after the opening drive or two what kind of night it's going to be for the Pittsburgh defense.
Likely the biggest, and second-biggest, and third-biggest factor in determining Brady's success on Sunday will be the protection provided by his offensive line, which will involve new players at left tackle, center and tight end. And while Pittsburgh will have its issues in the secondary, there's no doubt that the Steelers present a formidable defensive front.
With Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt on the line, and with T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Mark Barron, Vince Williams and rookie Devin Bush at linebacker, the Steelers have a diverse front that should be able to cause some confusion for a Patriots O-line that hasn't had any chances to work out any potential kinks.
That may require the Patriots' running backs to be at their best when picking up pass rushers on any downfield passing plays, and it'll also likely demand that Brady gets rid of the football a little bit quicker than usual. How the Patriots handle that challenge will largely determine what kind of game this will be.
Here's what we absolutely and unequivocally know about the pass catchers who will suit up for the Patriots on Sunday night:
--Julian Edelman will have a lot of pigskin thrown his way.
--So will James White.
Josh Gordon was excellent last year but missed a solid eight months of football. Jakobi Meyers had a great camp and a tremendous start to the preseason, but his in-game work with Brady didn't go so well. Demaryius Thomas, despite a tremendous preseason finale, has yet to work much at all with Brady, and his healing Achilles remains an unknown. Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo will be the only tight ends in uniform.
How exactly Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady make this all work is yet to be determined. It will be interesting to note where those targets go once the real games begin. Likewise, how each receiver handles those targets will be the first steps toward developing -- or dismantling -- some much-needed trust with the quarterback.
WILL THE D LIVE UP TO HYPE?
All offseason long, we've heard about how great this Patriots defense is. Coming off a Super Bowl where they held the NFL's second-highest scoring team to a measly three points, that has not been without reason.
While the preseason is only the preseason, the defense has already put the NFL on notice. The Patriots allowed just 230.5 yards and 13.5 points per game in the preseason, recording 18 sacks and three interceptions in the four games. None of those stats matter for much, but they did help to increase the expectations on the Patriots' defensive unit for this season.
Looking up and down the depth chart, you'd be hard-pressed to find a weakness. The secondary is as deep as it's been under Belichick since the first run of three Super Bowls, the linebacking corps has happily welcomed back Jamie Collins and Ja'Whaun Bentley, and the infusion of veteran Michael Bennett and rookie Chase Winovich seems like a suitable replacement for the loss of Trey Flowers.
Not even a pessimist's pessimist could sit here in early September and find a flaw with the defense. The only question now is whether the players -- and coaches Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick -- can make the unit live up to all that promise.
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