We have finally made it through the wilderness.
It seems like a lifetime ago since the Seahawks decided to patch Beast Mode from the one-yard line to toss an interception with the last play of the season and surrender their crown to the New England Patriots.
Fast forward through the Draft, OTA’s, the camps and the pre-season powder puff games and we finally get the real deal.
Having been so starved of genuine action anyone would happily accept any morsel of real football as a precursor to Sunday. Hell, I would have settled for the Jets @ Oakland. But the NFL is the gift that keeps on giving.
The 2015 season gets underway in style with the champions, New England, taking on the Pittsburgh Steelers at Foxborough.
A tasty match up at any point in the season but as an opener it comes with an added air of uncertainty. There has been turmoil in New England all off season due to Deflategate which led to Tom Brady being suspended until last week when a federal judge erased the ban.
Whilst in Pittsburgh a host of changes have led to a sea change on defense and suspensions to key players will make the start of the season a bumpy ride for the Steelers.
There are plenty of points to be aware of as these two illustrious franchises lock horns:
By Stephen Rhoden Jr – Lead NFL Writer – @SRhodenJr
The Patriots – The Narrative
Thank f**k for football. The whole of New England breathes a sigh of relief. Yet another off-season marred by controversy in regards to cheating and whispers of another Super Bowl title which is tainted has passed. The Deflategate saga rumbled on for far longer than it should ever have. And regardless of your views on whether or not the league were right or wrong to pursue the issue as much as they did, it’s not the time for fighting – now is the time for football.
Since the news broke last week that a federal judge was going to throw out the league imposed four-game suspension of Brady, New England have got their swagger back. No more needing to worry about whether or not Jimmy Garoppolo can guide the team through the first month or if Yodachick can concoct a game plan to get them through. Everything will be alright, everybody chill the f**k out. Tommy is back. And he’s angry!
That said, Brady will slot behind an inexperienced O-line – but it’s Tom, so until I see him getting destroyed due to poor line play I’m inclined to think he’ll be fine. He will have a familiar selection of weapons to choose from in his hobbit receivers, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, and his main man The Gronk. If Amendola can pick up from where he left off in the playoffs last year alongside the ever-reliable Edeltron, Brady can have faith in his receivers. With Brandon LaFell unavailable until week 8 due to injury help may be some way off getting help around those two go-to guys. Of course all this is negated by one man, one Superman and his name is The Gronk.
The Pats were pretty hopeless through the early weeks of last season whilst Rob Gronkowski built up his strength in recovery from being injured. But once he was ready to go there was no stopping him. He finished with 12 TDs and 1124 yards receiving so assuming he can stay healthy he should be expected to top those numbers this year. However it is perhaps the fact that Gronk remained healthy for at least a large part of last season that is his most remarkable achievement. Long may it continue.
At running back the Pats have stayed true to their M.O to date – anybody will do. The off-season saw them lose Steven Ridley and his fumbles as well as Shane Vereen in free agency. Current No.1 back LeGarrette Blount has a one-game suspension for a substance abuse violation leaving the Pats with a group of J.A.G’s at running back (Just Another Guy). Fourth year vet Brandon Boldin should lead the group with James White and Dion Lewis also in reserve. The names may not be great but I would not be stunned if Belichick hatched a plan that would lead to one of these dudes getting 100 plus yards and two TDs.
On the defensive side of the ball the Pats are a hollow shell of the defence that took them to the title last year. Both starting cornerbacks have left the team – Darrelle Revis to division rivals New York Jets, and Brandon Browner to the New Orleans Saints. To lose your two top cornerbacks would hurt any team, but when one of them is the best in the game, sorry Dick Sherman, then a considerable drop off in performance is to be expected.
Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler is now the main man at cornerback in New England and if it wasn’t for that interception we would have no idea who I was talking about. He will be joined by Devin McCourty who signed a new deal during free agency to remain in New England. McCourty is a highly-regarded member of the squad and was voted a team captain last year. His presence will certainly help the transitioning defensive.
Down in the trenches the Pats also lost another key cog in veteran DT Vince Wilfork. Wilfork moved to Houston in free agency having served the Pats for his full 11-year career to date. Although he may be slowing down, Wilfork was still a vital part of the defense in both run-stopping and pressuring the QB and his absence will certainly be felt by the line. However, with a stout returning core of linebackers as well as the additions of both rookie Trey Flowers and Jabaal Sheard via free agency, the pass rush which already hosts Chandler Jones and Dominique Easley will be bolstered.
There has obviously been a lot of turmoil off the field and with a host of changes on it, there has been a huge turnaround from the side that ended the 2014 season as champions. However, nobody handles this kind of change better than the Patriots. And for that reason I would fully expect them to tool up and dominate the East yet again. We’ll surely be seeing these guys playoff time.
Also, as an interesting side note, it’s worth remembering that the last time the Pats spent the off-season marred in a scandal over cheating they came back the next season and went 19-0, undefeated. Well, that was until Eli and the Giants beat them in the Super Bowl. I wouldn’t bet against a similar feat this year.