FOXBOROUGH – Never mind the banner. The buzz around Foxborough is all about Antonio Brown, the newest Patriot reclamation project.
A comment was made on the NBC broadcast of Sunday night’s season opener between the Super Bowl Champion Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cris Collinsworth mentioned that Brown “is probably at home watching the game on TV”, thinking to himself, “look what they’re doing without me”, and that “I guess I’d better try and fit in around here!” Even if that turns out to be true, one thing is for sure. The Patriots do not, absolutely, do not need Brown to be a championship team this year.
Because they throttled Brown’s former team, 33-3, without him.
The evening began with a ceremony that the Vegas Golden Knights would have been proud of, unveiling the sixth championship banner with as much drama and ceremony as was all over the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals. It ended with the Patriots looking better than when we last saw them in February, and their suffocation of the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl. For the second game in a row that meant something, the Patriots held their opponent to just a field goal, and the offense looks just terrific even minus the power running game which evolved at the end of last season.
Tom Brady, all of 42 years old now, finished 24 of 36 passing for 341 yards, three touchdowns and a 124.9 passer rating. He threw two touchdown passes to Philip Dorsett and one to the most recent reclamation project, Josh Gordon. Brady looks like anything but a 42-year old, and remains arguably the single most intriguing professional athlete on the planet. He did it without much help at all from the rushing attack, especially Sony Michel, and looked totally unflappable all evening long against a team he usually does well against, especially at home in Foxborough.
Meanwhile, the defense allowed just the one field goal and surrendered only 308 total yards. Ben Roethlisberger was 27 of 47 passing for 276 yards and a 65.6 passer rating. He did complete passes to eight different receivers, but the Patriots did not allow any of them to dominate the game. With Brown now a Patriot, JuJu Smith-Schuster is now the top passing target for Roethlisberger, and despite leading the team with six catches and 78 yards, he never got into a rhythm with his quarterback and was generally covered well by Stephon Gilmore.
Dorsett led the Patriots with 95 receiving yards. His first touchdown came in the second quarter, a 25-yarder on a simple post pattern in the right seam. Brady laid in a perfect toss, and Dorsett got two steps on his defender, Mike Hilton. The throw was not a laser, but more of a touch pass that hit Dorsett right in the fingertips. His second touchdown reception came in the third quarter and was the product of busted coverage by the Steeler secondary. Brady took a shotgun snap and then lobbed a deep pass over the middle. Steeler safety Kameron Kelly let Dorsett go, but there was nobody back there to pick him up. Dorsett was completely wide open when he hauled in the 58-yard scoring toss.
Gordon got the Patriots on the board in the first quarter. After the Patriots pulled off a nifty double pass with James White catching a 32-yard pass from Julian Edelman, Gordon lined up in the left slot at the Steeler 20. He ran a crossing pattern left across the formation, caught the pass from Brady wide open, then took off to the corner of the end zone. At about the 5-yard line he put a neat juke on Terrell Edmunds and shot into the end zone. Gordon finished with three catches for 73 yards, but for all of Patriot Nation, seeing Gordon out there and contributing positively is perhaps better news than the Brown signing.
Saying that the Patriots had a limited rushing attack seems misleading given that the Patriots still managed 99 total yards rushing and averaged 3.4 yards a carry. Rex Burkhead had 44 yards on eight carries, while White had 26 yards on four carries. Only Michel found rough goings, with only 14 yards on 15 carries. With the Patriots seemingly converting to a run-first offense, especially given the retirement of Rob Gronkowski, the fact that Brady carried the night against the Steelers is especially pleasing for all Patriot Nation to see.
The Patriots put the total clamps on the Steeler rushing attack, putting the game totally on Roethlisberger’s broad shoulders. James Conner, the very capable replacement for LeVeon Bell, was held to 21 yards on 10 carries. The Steelers only had 32 yards rushing as a team.
Perhaps the most telling moment as to how well the Patriot defense was playing came in the third quarter. The Steelers took the second-half kickoff and drove all the way to the Patriot one-yard line, helped greatly by a 45-yard completion from Roethlisberger to James Washington. On third and goal at the one, Roethlisberger tried to hit Donte Moncrief in the left corner of the end zone on a fade route, but overthrew him badly. Steeler coach Mike Tomlin elected to not go for it on fourth down and settled for a 19-yard field goal by Chris Boswell. The fact that Tomlin, trailing 20-0 at the time, wouldn’t go for it just one yard away from the end zone, speaks volumes over the mindset of the Steelers at that time.
Brady has never lost to the Steelers at home in his career. Sunday night was certainly no exception, but one has to wonder if Tomlin was spooked due to his past failures at Gillette Stadium. It behooved the Steelers to come away with a touchdown on the always critical first drive of the second half, and his settling for a field goal on fourth and goal at the one has to be very unsettling for Steeler fans on opening night.
The win pleased Bill Belichick very much. At his postgame press conference, he was unusually effusive in his praise for his team, and gave kinder answers to the questions asked of him. The only questions he flatly refused to answer were any questions related to Brown. Otherwise, he looked upbeat and actually happy to address the media. Even in victory, Belichick can sometimes be gruff and give either one-word answers or simply non-answers. On Sunday night, even though he conceded that the Patriots do poorly in Miami (their next game) and that they have an important week ahead, the coach seemed to be content with Week One.
The fans celebrated Banner Number Six, then left for home early still very happy with the final score no longer in doubt. The Patriots get a Dolphin squad next week down in hot and humid Miami, a Dolphin team with a new head coach named Brian Flores, but who got throttled by Baltimore on Sunday afternoon, 59-10. Miami may be playing for a high draft pick for next year already, as was suggested on a local Boston sports program. Belichick will have none of that, as he has already stated that the Patriots have trouble winning in Miami, and it’s even worse early in the year when it’s oppressive weather in Florida.
The Super Bowl champs are at least good on Week One. Looking every bit like a championship team, celebrating like one, it was all there on Sunday night. If they are to repeat this year, the Patriots are at least off to a great start.