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Rob Gronkowski, Patriots put on familiar show

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The running backs change. The cornerbacks change. Even the scandals change. But Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Rob Gronkowski remain in New England, so the winning remains the same.

The Patriots handled the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday 28-21 in a raucous atmosphere in Foxbourgh to kick off the 2015 season. Gronk finished with 94 yards receiving, three touchdowns and a key fumble recovery on a night that reminded everyone he's the most dominant force on the defending champions' roster.

This was a night that felt similar to so many others over the years at Gillette Stadium. Brady threw four touchdowns and 288 yards on only 28 attempts. A random running back (Dion Lewis) broke out with 120 yards from scrimmage. The Patriots' defense bent, giving up 464 yards, but didn't break. They played well in the red zone and forced four field-goal attempts.

The action of the game felt familiar, but the atmosphere was singular. Brady came out to an enormous ovation before the game and was clearly amped up to be on the field after a trying offseason. The crowd chanted "Where is Roger?" in the fourth quarter, in reference to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who chose not to attend the game after Judge Richard Berman nullified Brady's four-game suspension to start the year.

Playing on the road in the NFL Kickoff game is always a tall order, and the Steelers will be kicking themselves about missed opportunities. Josh Scobee might not have a job next week after missing two field goals. Ben Roethlisberger was extremely sharp with 351 yards passing, yet his secondary receivers beyond Antonio Brown couldn't come up with a few big plays. The Steelers' offense needs to be more efficient because their secondary does not look capable of stopping quality opponents. Then again, few teams stop Gronkowski.

It was extremely telling to hear Belichick recently break down the difference between the Patriots' 2011-2013 teams and their championship squad in 2014. Belichick told NFL Films the difference came down to two factors: Their defense, and Gronk's availability. The Patriots can survive injuries or upheaval on the offensive line. They can live without any running back or wideout. But they just aren't championship caliber without Gronkowski or Brady.

It feels awkward to put a tight end on a similar level as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, but Gronk's performance Thursday showed why it's not so crazy. Linebackers can't cover him and defensive backs can't tackle him. He showed off his big-play ability on his 52-yard scamper, and showed how impossible he is to cover in the red zone during his three touchdowns. Gronk tilts the field, creates mismatches for himself and his teammates and controls a game like few tight ends in NFL history.

As long as the team has Brady and Gronk available, Belichick can figure out the rest.

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