The Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX on Feb. 1, 2015.
What followed was over seven months of ridiculous, nauseating, are-you-kidding-me reports, rulings, and everything in-between regarding Tom Brady, Roger Goodell, NFL executives, court rooms (and court room sketches) and deflated footballs.
When the dust storm settled, the Patriots took a hit, but Tom Brady hit the NFL back.
He, along with his team, will run out from the Gillette Stadium tunnel Thursday as the defending Super Bowl champions. They’ll watch as the stadium unveils its fourth Super Bowl banner – all with Brady at QB – and celebrate not only beating the Seattle Seahawks but knocking the NFL down a peg or two.
And then, thankfully, actual football will be played. The ball will be kicked off and the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers will charge full steam ahead at one another. What happens in those next sixty minutes will determine how long this celebration goes into the night in Foxboro.
Here are three things to watch for Thursday (8:30 p.m., NBC - WHDH Channel 7):
Give Us Gronk – And His Major Sidekick
It’s time to unleash the Patriots' two-headed tight end monster again as Rob Gronkowski and new edition Scott Chandler look to give Brady two gigantic targets down the field, and especially in the end zone. The Pats understandably did not play Gronk in the preseason – it’s not worth the risk of injury – but he was his normal Gronk self in practice. Chandler dealt with an injury for part of camp, but returned to catch a TD from Brady in the preseason. Chandler is not the same type of tight end that Aaron Hernandez was, but Belichick loves the tight end position perhaps more than any other coach in the league and it’ll be fun to see how he utilizes this duo this season.
Who’s Running the Ball?
It’s a bit ironic that both LeGarrette Blount and Le’Veon Bell are suspended for Thursday’s opener, as the two former teammates were together last season when they were arrested while driving with possession of marijuana. Bell was hit with a DUI, too, and will miss Week 2 as well. But it makes you wonder who will get the snaps for the Pats? The Patriots surprised many by cutting Jonas Gray, thought to be the lead candidate for Week 1. That leaves them with a quartet of seldom-used backs: Brandon Bolden, Travaris Cadet, James White, and Dion Lewis. These are third down-type backs, and it could just come down to the hot hand. Lewis could emerge from the bunch.
A Test for the Secondary
With Bell down, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers are going to throw. While they will be without WR Martavis Bryant, they’ve still got Antonio Brown, considered one of the top wide receivers in the league, and Markus Wheaton. Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler will have his hands full in this one, but he’ll need help on the other side from guys like Logan Ryan. Captain Devin McCourty should patrol the deep part of the field as usual.