Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New England Patriots Preview & Prediction

The 2015 NFL Regular Seasons kicks off in grand fashion on Thursday night as the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots play host to Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Can the Patriots put an offseason of distraction behind them and begin their repeat quest with a victory? Are the Steelers the right team at the right time to take over the mantle of the AFC's most dangerous team? Here's our preview & prediction for tonight's epic season opener.

New England Patriots Outlook

Just a few weeks ago, we were faced with the prospects of a Tom Brady-less Pats team that would be tasked with treading water for four games while their all-world starting quarterback sat out his Deflategate suspension. However, that's all in the past now and it'll be a steaming, determined Brady who will take the field in Foxboro still captaining one of the most versatile offenses in all of the National Football League.

Expect Brady to air it out even more tonight with LeGarrette Blount sitting out a one-game suspension for a violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy, with pass-catching back Dion Lewis likely to get his fair share of targets in the role filled by Shane Vereen last year. When Brady isn't on the field targeting Lewis, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, they'll field a retooled defense without familiar faces such as Vince Wilfork and Darrelle Revis, but still possessing the same edge (with a younger cast) as last year's squad.

Pittsburgh Steelers Outlook

The Steelers will look a lot different in October, when running back Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant are back and fully rolling from their suspensions. For now, the Steelers offense will lean on the Big Ben/Antonio Brown connection and a running game led off by former Carolina Panthers standout DeAngelo Williams and hit-or-miss second year player Dri Archer. The defending AFC North champions are a potential offensive bunch with or without Bell and Bryant, so don't expect them to come into Thursday's showdown completely discombobulated. 

On defense, the Steelers are looking for a spark in the wake of longtime D.C. Dick LeBeau's departure and promotion of assistant Keith Butler to the post. Pittsburgh was in the middle to back end of the AFC in almost every significant defensive metric last season -- a far cry from the dominant defenses of years past. If Butler can push this defense to league average or better, an 11-5 team (2014) suddenly becomes of the few legit Super Bowl contenders in the league.

What To Watch For

This has been one of the most heated and entertaining AFC rivalries of the past decade, and we don't expect tonight to be any different. Key an eye on two matchups -- Antonio Brown vs. the Patriots secondary and Rob Gronkowski vs. the Steelers' linebackers/secondary. Gronk has owned the Steelers in three career games, catching 21 balls for 409 yards and four touchdowns. On the other side, Antonio Brown is what you get if you transferred the toughness of a hulking slot possession receiver into a smaller, more home-run threatening frame. Whichever team can (partially) neutralize the other team's best aerial weapon should win the game.

Prediction: Pats win 28-24

The Patriots are almost impossible to beat at home and it should be even tougher to do with the team rallying behind the somewhat-exonerated Tom Brady. Pittsburgh has never beaten Brady at home, and with a hostile prime-time New England crowd set to rock Gillette Stadium all night long, we can't see it happening tonight.

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Related Topics: Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots, NFL Kickoff Game, NFL Thursday Night Football, Rob Gronkowski, Thursday Night Football, Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, NFL, Tom Brady