|A free and fired-up Brady led New England to a win in its season-opener (SI.com)|
That's what the reigning Super Bowl champs did in the NFL season opener, putting their whirlwind offseason behind them by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 28-21, at Gillette Stadium.
On a cool, rainy night in Foxborough, there was surprisingly ample offense in spite of the damp conditions. Pittsburgh piled up 464 total yards, pushing New England's bend-not-break defense to its limit. 134 of those yards were gained on the ground, with DeAngelo Williams accounting for all but seven of those yards. Williams went to town, averaging just over six yards per carry.
New England, on the other hand, didn't get much out of its running game (80 rush yards, though Dion Lewis performed well in his first career start), putting even more pressure on Tom Brady to produce. Brady didn't disappoint, turning in a near-perfect performance. He completed 25 of his 32 pass attempts, including a franchise record 19 in a row (and his few strays didn't miss by much) en route to 288 yards and four touchdowns.
Three of those TD passes fell into the massive hands of Rob Gronkowski, who had a monster game with 94 yards on five catches. Pittsburgh had no answer for him when Brady reached the red zone, forgetting to cover him on several occasions (a costly and inexcusable mistake, given that he's usually the biggest player on the field at any given moment). The Steelers were also unable to contain Julian Edelman, who broke free for 97 receiving yards on 11 catches as well as nine rushing yards on a single carry. Brady's favorite target was his usual pesky self, getting open in the slot and talking tons of trash, even after getting slammed to the ground multiple times.
The game started slow, with a scoreless first quarter full of penalties. Things started picking up in the second quarter, with New England drawing first blood on its second series of the game via its first Brady-Gronk connection. Following a missed Josh Scobee field goal--his second shank in as many chances--Brady and Gronk struck again to put the Pats up 14-0. Scobee put Pittsburgh on the board by drilling a 44-yarder with seven seconds left in the first half, making the score 14-3 at the half.
The Patriots came out guns blazing in the second half, completing a 65 yard drive with Brady's third TD pass of the evening but first to a player not named Gronkowski. New England's other tight end, Scott Chandler, hauled it in. Pittsburgh answered right back with a touchdown on its first drive of the second half when Will Johnson jumped over New England's D-line, followed by a successful two-point conversion pass to Markus Wheaton. The Steelers scored on their next drive as well, cutting New England's lead to 21-14 early in the fourth.
The game didn't remain close for long, however, as Pittsburgh's defense was unable to hold the line. The Patriots effectively put the game away when Brady found Gronk in the end zone for the third time, rebuilding their lead to 14 with 9:24 remaining. Ben Roethlisberger failed to lead Pittsburgh back, as the next two Steeler drives resulted in a three-and-out and an interception. By the time he got the ball back again, New England had run the clock down to three minutes. His 70-yard touchdown drive--punctuated by a nice pass to Antonio Brown--proved too little too late, as only seven seconds remained by the time Pittsburgh scored. Gronk recovered the onside kick, and that was that.
The Patriots will look to remain undefeated next Sunday in Buffalo, while the Le'Veon Bell-less Steelers shoot for their first win at home against the 49ers.