By Christina Rivers

Following an off-season and pre-season marred by controversy from the Deflategate scandal in the NFL, the New England Patriots are looking to shake off the huge chip on their shoulders and stare down the Pittsburgh Steelers. On Thursday night at Gillette Stadium, the defending Super Bowl champions will enter a new season against a perennial AFC powerhouse Steelers team looking for a repeat performance from an explosive offense and improvement from a very young defense.

Season Record

The Patriots finished the 2014 NFL regular season with a 12-4 record in the franchise’s 45th season in the league. It was the third year in a row they were able to accomplish the feat and it propelled them into a league record fifth playoff season in successive years since the league switched to a 12-team format in 1990. New England went on to defeat the Baltimore Ravens (35-31) in the Divisional Round, advancing to their fourth straight AFC Championship game, this time against the Indianapolis Colts. After a 45-7 win, the Patriots entered their eighth Super Bowl appearance and secured a 28-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. It was the fourth championship in franchise history.

It was during the playoff period that the questions of deflated footballs came into play, something that the Patriots hoped would be cleared up before the 2015 season began. Although star quarterback Tom Brady remains caught in a battle with the league due to appeals, he addressed the media on Sunday for the first time since his Super Bowl MVP news conference and subsequent Deflategate appearances.

“It’s been a very tough situation for everybody,” said Brady. “Hopefully we can just keep learning from life’s experiences…I think now the goal is to focus on what my job is and what I need to go out there and do to help our team win.”

Patriots on Offense

With Brady ready to handle the quarterback duties, his concern on offense may be on how well his offensive line will hold up against the Steelers defense. Second-year center Bryan Stork is coming off of concussion protocol and did not participate in practice on Sunday. His backup would be veteran Ryan Wendell who was just recently activated off of the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Wendell played guard in 2014 and would be flanked by two rookies should he start. Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason had extended time in the lineup during the preseason, but Mason’s play saw a bit of a decline and Josh Kline may get a start on Thursday night. The Patriots will be without tackle Cameron Fleming who was instrumental in creating lanes for Jonas Gray against the Colts. New England waived Fleming in favor of keeping Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon on the roster.

The Patriots held on to five backs after cutting ties with Gray who led the team in rushing yards last season. They will be without LeGarrette Blount against Pittsburgh due to his suspension for violating league policy – while he was with the Steelers in 2014 at that. The plan against Pittsburgh is unclear leading into the game. While Brandon Bolden has filled in as a starter, his three career games of ten-plus carries isn’t the type of production New England would like on the ground. James White is a versatile back with the ability to catch a pass, but Dion Lewis may get the start after displaying good power during the preseason as well as the ability to pass protect.

New England has some questions at receiver as well heading into their first regular season game of the year. Brandon LaFell is on the PUP list and Reggie Wayne asked the team for his release. According to Scott Zolak, Wayne wanted out of New England because playing for the team was “not fun”. His total time with the Patriots was 12 days and $450,000 in guaranteed money. That leaves Brady looking for some chemistry with Aaron Dobson. Danny Amendola may be on the roster, but Brady will look to favor tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler for critical conversions against Pittsburgh.

Patriots on Defense

While the New England offense tries to take advantage of a young Steelers defense that struggled in the preseason, the Patriots defense will be eager to flip the field. With a healthy respect for Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, the Patriots know that Pittsburgh will be without leading rusher Le’Veon Bell. DeAngelo Williams will get the start at running back, but the Steelers will be without offensive line leader Maurkice Pouncey at center as well due to injury. That is incentive to pressure Roethlisberger often.

Bill Belichick is putting a lot of pressure on safety Devin McCourty to lead his defensive backfield this season. After keeping only four cornerbacks, Belichick is likely to allow Jordan Richards to cover the slot and McCourty to run the field. Patrick Chung will see time at safety as well. That leaves Malcolm Butler, Tarell Brown, Logan Ryan and Bradley Fletcher deep against Brown and Markus Wheaton. The Steelers will be without Martavis Bryant due to suspension.

Patriots’ Players to Watch

If the running game stalls for New England, Travaris Cadet – a three year veteran who came over from New Orleans – is a capable rusher who has the ability to get open out of the backfield to catch outlet passes. At 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, Cadet is a nice target and recorded 38 receptions for 296 yards while with the Saints.

On defense, Dont’a Hightower is looking to come back after a 2014 season that saw him plagued by injury twice. Despite only 12 starts, Hightower recorded 89 tackles and six sacks in 2014. In Super Bowl XLIX, Hightower finished with five tackles including a critical one-yard line snag on rusher Marshawn Lynch that prevented a go-ahead touchdown and set up a Malcolm Butler interception of Russell Wilson to seal the championship. As a team leader, Hightower will be looking for an opportunity to get into the Steelers’ offensive backfield and spark the Patriots defense.

Outlook

Thursday night’s game is a national event, opening up CBS’ Thursday Night Football before millions and the build up has been intense leading up to kickoff. Both teams have been heavy AFC contenders, making this game not only a high-stakes affair to kick off the season but show dominance in the conference. “Once again, it looks like (Pittsburgh has) a real strong football team,” Belichick told the media on Saturday. “They play hard, they’re tough, they’re a physical team in all three phases of the game, so we’re going to need to be at our best here on Thursday night, and we can’t afford to make any mistakes.”

“It’ll be hostile,” Roethlisberger told the media when asked about the game. “I think the biggest thing is to go out and control your emotion because there’s going to be a lot of emotion flowing. The nerves will be flying around.”

Vegas has the Patriots coming out on top, but a game this intense is always an unpredictable one. New England is dealing with some new faces and situations, as is Pittsburgh. Both teams are expected to have explosive offenses this season, but are dealing with changes on the defensive side of the ball. Turnovers will play a major part in who comes out as victors. With both teams having spent extra time focused on each other since the 2015 schedule was announced, competition should be high as two powerhouses take the field.

Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a journalist and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied Exercise Physiology and Sports Psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL as well as a published author. Her work can be found on
Examiner.com.