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What to watch for during Steelers-Patriots

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We've made it.

The dog days of summer have given way to September, sweeping away meaningless preseason fare for football games that finally matter.

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Thursday night's NFL Kickoff between the Patriots and Steelers bookends an offseason of unwanted drama for New England while giving fans their first look at two teams armed with Super Bowl aspirations.

Here's what we're watching for as the Steelers travel to Gillette Stadium on Thursday night:

1. Tom Brady saw his four-game suspension scattered to the wind, saving this opener from looking more like an exhibition stinker. New England's star passer will be on the field, but the Patriots are shorthanded in the backfield due to LeGarrette Blount's one-game suspension. The Steelers have their own problems, with premier runner Le'Veon Bell beginning a two-game ban and Martavis Bryant suspended for the first four weeks of the year. Patriots coach Bill Belichick could finesse a 200-yard rushing performance out of Natalie Portman, but Bell is irreplaceable for the Steelers. In his place, veteran backup DeAngelo Williams becomes a focal point.

2. Patriots center Bryan Stork officially has been ruled out, leaving undrafted rookie David Andrews and veteran Ryan Wendell -- coming off shoulder surgery -- as potential fill-ins. We trust New England to roll out a well-coached attack, but the team's interior line is a concern. New Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler promised to show "some different things" with Pittsburgh's pass rush, but can Jarvis Jones, up-and-down rookie Bud Dupree and 37-year-old James Harrison get in Brady's head?

3. The Patriots will do their damage with Tommy throwing to game-changing tight end Rob Gronkowski. Wideout Brandon LaFell (foot) won't play, but we expect to see Julian Edelman (leg) line up alongside Danny Amendola. The name to watch for New England is Dion Lewis, Belichick's scatback of choice for the opener and a previous favorite of former Browns CEO Joe Banner, who tweeted that it was "amazing that the entire league missed on him." The question is whether the ex-Cleveland and Eagles back still possesses the speed that made him fun to watch before fracturing his fibula two summers ago. Based off the preseason, Lewis still remains a juicy target in space who runs with surprising power.

4. The argument for this being a shootout: Two secondaries that roll into the game with more questions than answers. The Steelers graded out as the worst team in the NFL against the pass this preseason, while the Patriots were bottom-10 material, per Pro Football Focus. Preseason stats mean zilch, but Troy Polamalu has been replaced by newbie safety Shamarko Thomas -- and we don't trust these cornerbacks. For New England, Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler believes his secondary -- stripped of Darrelle Revis -- will surprise people. The key is slowing down Steelers passer Ben Roethlisberger, who Belichick called "as good as anybody" at extending plays.

5. We can't get out of here without again mentioning Brady, who many believed wouldn't take the field until the team's Week 6 showdown with the Colts. Instead, the four-time Super Bowl champ has a chance to bury months of Deflategate chaos with a big opening night. Don't expect the Patriots to wilt under this week's barrage of look-back Spygate reporting, either. Love him or hate him, Belichick is the best around at preparing his players.

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