The fact that there are some key players missing on both sides of the season-opening game between the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steleers on Thursday night makes this a rather challenging handicapping experience. It may have been even more interesting, considering the game is at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, if Jimmy Garoppolo was the Pats’ quarterback instead of Tom Brady, but certainly most fans – and probably most bettors – are happy that Brady has beaten the NFL in court and had his four-game suspension reversed. Game time is 8:30 PM ET and NBC will televise.
Let’s lay out some information about who WON’T be on hand. The Patriots have Brady, but they will be without the suspended LaGarrette Blount, who has been designated this team’s starting running back after the departures of Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. And Brandon Lafell is injured. Familiar faces on the defensive unit, such as nose tackle Vince Wilfork and cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, left via free agency.
The Steelers will be missing Le’Veon Bell, the outstanding dual-purpose running back who gained over 2200 yards from scrimmage last year but is suspended for two games, as well as wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who was expected to have an expanded role in the offense but will be gone for the first four games for a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. Center Maurkice Pouncey, a four-time Pro Bowler, is going to be out for at least three months with an ankle injury. Retirement claimed future Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu, along with Ike Taylor and Jason Worilds. And defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was relieved of his duties, with linebacker coach Keith Butler getting hired.
New England Patriots -7
Pittsburgh Steelers +7
Over 51.5 points -110
Under 51.5 points -110
We mention all that stuff because these teams have to work around it. So as we try to determine which way to go, it’s going to depend on who we think can do it better.
We have seen Brady negotiate his way through seasons previous to this with spare parts. He can improvise with the best of them. So as long as he has those smurf receivers, plus the big tight end combination of Rob Gronkowski and the newly-acquired Scott Chandler, who could improve their chances to convert in the red zone (something the weren’t terribly proficient at last year), he ought to be able to overcome an underwhelming backfield “committee” that consist of Brandon Bolden, Dion Lewis and a couple of others.
Meanwhile,bettors will undoubtedly recall that when the Steelers, last year’s AFC North champions, had to move forward without Bell (who was injured at the time) in the playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens this past January, they sputtered, struggling to achieve balance and putting up just one touchdown in the 30-17 defeat. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times without the threat of a running game. We’re not sure DeAngelo Williams is scaring the new England defensive staff. And this would be the time Big Ben could really use a guy like Bryant. Not having Pouncey doesn’t help either.
We don’t know if the Pats are going to have as good a record with turnovers as did last season, when they coughed it up only thirteen times. But inasmuch as Brady can play ball control with the short passing game, and LeBeau’s “stamp” won’t be on this transitioning Pittsburgh defense, I think there is a better chance for New England to maintain the kind of numbers in terms of time of possession per drive (2nd in the league) as well as field position (second best average starting line of scrimmage on both offense and defense) than it will for Pittsburgh to approach their 39.38 yards per drive figure or their 3:03 average time of possession, both of which were best in the league, without the presence of Bell.