The Patriots will look different, but still terrific, on Sunday vs. the Steelers

The quest for back-to-back Super Bowls starts Sunday night.

JuJu Smith-Schuster and the Steelers beat the Patriots in December. –Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Welcome to Season 8, Episode 1 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.

The Patriots season begins Sunday night (8:20, NBC, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, and Michele Tafoya on the call) with a prelude that is both familiar and always satisfying.

The Patriots will unveil their sixth championship banner in one last homage to their Super Bowl LIII victory over the Los Angeles Rams in February. Then they will formally begin their quest for a seventh against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

We know by now that no two seasons are the same, and sequels to championships don’t always follow the plot scripted in fans’ minds. And this is not the entirely same cast responsible for that banner.

Advertisement

Rob Gronkowski is retired, for now. Trey Flowers is a very rich Lion. Ryan Allen, Cordarrelle Patterson, Chris Hogan, and assorted others with new Super Bowl rings are elsewhere.

But a terrific team remains. Tom Brady looks healthier at 42 than he did at 22. The defense that broke Rams coach Sean McVay’s big brain in the Super Bowl is loaded. Good players such as Elandon Roberts and Deatrich Wise had to fight for roster spots.

While so many other franchises (hello, Colts) must worry about their starting quarterback situation, the biggest debate during Patriots camp was whether the respected 33-year-old backup would make the team. Brian Hoyer is now a Colt.

Nearly 20 years after Belichick became coach, and 18 years after Brady stepped in for injured Drew Bledsoe, the Patriots are a defending champion and a contender still.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll keep providing the reminders until it’s no longer the truth: These are the good old days. Savor them while they last, because they’ve already lasted longer than anyone would have dared imagine all those years ago.

Kick it off, Stephen Gostkowski (or perhaps Jake Bailey?), and let’s get this season started . . .

THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED TOM BRADY

Advertisement

Michael Bennett — Through the years, there have been occasional annoying opponents who have eventually joined forces with the Patriots. The most notable was probably Darrelle Revis, who spent his prime with the Jets, helped the Patriots win their first Super Bowl in a decade during his one season here (2014), then returned to the Jets, where he got paid a wheelbarrow full of money to be a poor facsimile of what he once was. Reggie Wayne and Torry Holt were both here during training camps, but neither played an actual game as a Patriot. Bennett certainly fits into this category, given that as a Seahawk he suffered a meltdown at his core in the final moments of Super Bowl XLIX in February 2015 after Brady drew him offside with 20 seconds remaining. A brawl ensued, and Bennett and Gronkowski ended up swinging at each other in the chaos. I’m not bringing this up to suggest Bennett is a dubious addition to the Patriots — he looked great in camp and should be their best pass rusher even at 33. It’s just a reminder that being a Patriots nemesis does not preclude players from becoming a Patriot at some point. I’m still surprised Richard Sherman never made his way to Foxborough.

Buy Tickets

Sony Michel — Call him the guy everyone outside of New England — and maybe a few of our neighbors, too — underestimated in their fantasy football drafts last year. Consider: Michel missed three games and still finished his rookie season with 931 rushing yards and six touchdowns; he was a pass-catching threat at Georgia who had just seven receptions as a rookie, and spent training camp being integrated into the passing game; the Patriots emphasized a power-running game during their postseason run, and that resulted in Michel rushing for 336 yards and six touchdowns in three playoff games. Good health willing, he is going to have a huge season. You’ll be glad the Patriots drafted him with a first-round pick last year if you aren’t already. And you’ll regret not drafting him in fantasy if you didn’t. I’d call him their breakout star, but that breakout already happened last postseason, when the stakes were highest.

Advertisement

Ben Roethlisberger — I know we’re rightfully averse around here to talk about older quarterbacks falling off cliffs, but I can’t help but wonder whether this is the season Roethlisberger begins to break down. He was excellent in some ways last season, leading the NFL in passing attempts (452), completions (675), and yardage (5,129), but he also threw a league-worst 16 picks. Over the final seven weeks, he threw nine interceptions to 13 touchdown passes as the Steelers went 3-4 and missed the playoffs. Now he’s without Antonio Brown, a royal pain in the (pick a body part) but a highly productive one, which should make things tougher on talented JuJu Smith-Schuster, who now carries the weight of being the first option. Roethlisberger is 37 and he’s always been more of a brick wall than pliable when it comes to absorbing hits. His most similar player statistically is Eli Manning, who belly-flopped off the cliff two years ago. I don’t know if it happens to Roethlisberger this year, but he’s on the edge and looking down at the water below.

THE RECEIVERS SITUATION

Last season, it was the Patriots’ defense that evolved, a work in progress that allowed more than 400 yards in five of the first seven games before peaking by stifling the Rams — prematurely crowned as an all-time great offense — in the Super Bowl.

This year, the defense should be ferocious from the first snap, with the biggest improvement coming on offense — specifically, the passing game. The Patriots have enviable talent in their receiving corps. But they’re not just all at different stages of their careers, they’re at different stages of preparedness. Josh Gordon’s talent is otherworldly, but he hasn’t played an NFL snap since he was suspended after the Week 15 loss to the Steelers last season. Demaryius Thomas has fit in in every way, but he turns 32 in December and is coming off an Achilles’ injury. Julian Edelman, remarkable as he is (count me among those who believe his Hall of Fame case is legitimate), is 33. Phillip Dorsett has some David Patten in him — he catches almost everything thrown his way and is secure in the Brady circle of trust — but he’s a secondary option. First-round pick N’Keal Harry begins the season on injured reserve, and it would be a victory at this point if his rookie season approaches the productivity of Malcolm Mitchell’s three years ago. And who knows what to make now of training camp revelations Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski?

It’s a talented group with diverse skills, and it’s impossible not to get excited about seeing accomplished names such as Gordon, Thomas, and Edelman on the field together. But it’s going to take some time to learn who will live up to their names, and which new names might emerge.

GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK

Tough to cook up a grievance given that Brady is still the Patriots quarterback, Belichick is still the coach, Gronkowski keeps dropping hints about there being some possibility of joining up as second-half ringer, the defense is loaded, another banner is about to go up, and another championship-caliber team is about to take the field to start a new season in a dynasty’s second decade. But there’s at least this annoyance: If you’re a Patriots fan, stop sweating that the Patriots missed on another second-round pick in Duke Dawson, who joins Ras-I Dowling, Terrence Wheatley, and Darius Butler (to some degree) as defensive backs who were chosen in that round for reasons that never showed up on the field. It’s weird that Belichick has missed on a lot of guys in that round — there’s a laundry list of busts at receiver, too — but it’s hardly damning. The draft is a crapshoot in every round. The Patriots have had hits there as well — start with Gronk, and include Shane Vereen and Jamie Collins, too. The Patriots’ typical strategy of accumulating picks all over the board is a nod to the hit rate of NFL prospects; they’re all lottery tickets for the most part, so it’s not a bad idea to have more shots at it than the other guy. More important, the Patriots cut their losses and admit their mistakes. If a rookie free agent is a better player than someone plucked in Round 3, that rookie free agent is getting the roster spot. Yeah, it’s always frustrating when a prospect hyped by Mel Kiper Jr. doesn’t make it. Be grateful that the Patriots’ roster spots go to those who earn them, not to those with the better pedigree and bigger signing bonus.

PREDICTION, OR DON’T YOU MISS THE DAYS OF TOM BRADY PUMP-FAKING TROY POLAMULU INTO A DIFFERENT AREA CODE?

As fun as an opener with 58-minute genius Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs might have been, it’s fitting that the Steelers are the Patriots’ opening night opponent. The Steelers are the only other franchise to have collected six Lombardi Trophies, and just one of two other teams to have won two Super Bowls since this Patriots dynasty began with a win over the then-St. Louis Rams.

The Patriots haven’t really had a prolonged rival during their two-decade dynasty. Peyton Manning was a worthy rival as a player with the Colts and Broncos, the Giants beat them in two Super Bowls, and I guess the Jets had fleeting moments of success within the AFC East before turning back into the Jets. But there’s been no annual rival. They’ve all been vanquished, again and again.

The Steelers? Brady is 11-3 against Pittsburgh in his career, including 3-0 in the playoffs, with 31 touchdown passes to just five interceptions. They’re a rival like Michael Spinks’s ribcage was a rival to Mike Tyson’s right fist.

The Steelers beat the Patriots last December, 17-10, in Week 15. It was the Patriots’ second straight loss, a jarring rarity for them in a month in which they usually are flooring the gas pedal.

They never lost again last season en route to their sixth Super Bowl. And they’re not about to lose to the Steelers to begin their quest for a seventh.

Prediction: Patriots 31, Steelers 17.

KEY MATCHUP

Ted Karras (75) is in his fourth NFL season.

Patriots center Ted Karras vs. Steelers nose tackle Javon Hargrave.

We’re probably being too precise with this matchup — in a broader sense, it’s more like the Patriots’ interior offensive line against the Steelers’ interior defensive line. But the spotlight will be on Karras — at least as much as it can be on a grunt of a lineman in a game full of big-name stars — because the fourth-year lineman and former sixth-round pick is the one with the important duty of replacing stalwart center David Andrews, who was lost for the season after being diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs during training camp. Karras has started five of his 45 games in his NFL career, and his sixth start comes against a bulky and talented group of Pittsburgh linemen. (It will be interesting to monitor whether veteran center Russell Bodine, acquired from the Bills Aug. 30, sees any meaningful action.) Hargrave, the nose tackle, defensive tackle Cameron Heyward, and end Stephen Tuitt combined for 20 of the Steelers’ 52 sacks last year, a total that tied for the NFL lead. They were also stout against the run, finishing sixth in rushing defense last season. They clear space for the Steelers’ speedy linebackers, a group that now includes impressive first-round pick Devin Bush, but they make plenty of plays themselves, too. They’ll try to create pressure up the middle against Brady. Karras will have help from the Patriots’ tremendous guard tandem of Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney, and line coach Dante Scarnecchia always melds a cohesive unit, but make no mistake: Karras’s task Sunday is as difficult as it is important.