Romilly Evans previews the curtain-raiser for the coming NFL campaign, and expects Pittsburgh to deny Tom Brady some home comforts on his return from controversy
"Bill Belichick has been losing behemoths like dinosaurs in an asteroid strike"
Pittsburgh Steelers @ New England Patriots
Start-time: Friday, 01:30
TV: Live on Sky Sports
Call it what you will: reciprocity, the law of averages, even a reversal of the natural cycle. But for my money, the New England Patriots are about to have a reality-check campaign, and their frailties could start to show as early as this seasonal pipe-opener at fortress Foxborough.
Even though Tom Brady has been cleared to play this curtain-raiser, the prospect of subsequent appeals, or at least relentless media judgement, will hound him for some time yet. Shakespeare never made under-inflated footballs the subject of comedic farce, but it appears the great bard missed a gap in the market.
Forget the controversy, though, most will argue. It's game day. No-one does us-and-them motivation better than Bill Belichick and Brady, and their combined tunnel vision should set the Pats on a path towards another powerful play-off push.
However, even leaving aside the Deflategate distractions, this is a Patriots team in reverse. Particularly on their D, which is now stripped of any playmakers or proven defensive cohesion. Their taxing schedule is another cause for concern. It starts with these capable Pittsburgh Steelers and seldom lets up, bar lesser divisional rivalries. Don't expect a revolution, but an evolution into mediocrity is certainly my prediction for the coming regular season.
The trouble with evolution, established theory though it is, is that it typically takes enormous tracts of time to promote discernable change. Time which allows loopy creationists to question how the human eye came into existence after years of our forerunners fumbling around in the dark, or counter scientific proof that the Earth has been here for billions of years with retorts as myopic as: "you weren't there, so how do you know?" If only they had eyes to see.
However, Belichick has been losing behemoths like dinosaurs in an asteroid strike for years. Of his top playmakers, only quarterback Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski really endure. Gronk, the best tight end in the game with a staggering 54 touchdowns in 65 regular-season games, remains Brady's dependable lifeline for moving the chains - doubtless coupled to a few cameos from their one legitimate wide receiver in Julian Edelman.
Yet, this one-dimensional structure is obviously pretty predictable. The Steelers linebackers, led by all-star Lawrence Timmons and the up-and-coming Ryan Shazier, will try to hurry and harry, and can at least disrupt the Brady-Gronk rhythm.
Not that the Steelers are without their own problems. Pro-Bowl running man Le'Veon Bell is slated to miss the opening three encounters this term after violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy (cue DeAngelo Williams) while top wideout Antonio Brown has been unsettled over his contractual stasis in preseason.
That said, under talismanic Ben Roethlisberger, this offense still has the ability to keep pace with any opponent, despite a propensity for petulance. In short, Big Ben knows the time of day and can exploit an ailing Pats' defense. Linebacker Jerod Mayo may be "good to go" but he's definitely not in rude health, whereas Jabaal Sheard is not a defensive end on which to hang a unit.
So giving up a generous touchdown head-start, and with the Steelers likely to receive the kick-off, the Patriots are worth opposing on the main handicap and a few early-quarter rates, too. Brown might even send a timely reminder to the Pittsburgh powers-that-be by snaffling the opening score.
Back Pittsburgh Steelers (+7) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 1.9110/11 or better
Back Pittsburgh Steelers (+3.5) to win on the First Half Points Spread @ 2.01/1 or better
Back Pittsburgh Steelers (+0.5) to win on the First Quarter Points Spread @ 2.01/1 or better
Back Over 22.5 Total Pittsburgh Steelers Points @ 1.9110/11 or better
Back A. Brown to score First / Anytime Touchdown 10.09/1 or better