2015 NFL Kickoff: What we expect to happen during Thursday's Patriots vs. Steelers game

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By JOHN DORN

At long last, the NFL season is finally upon us.

The New England Patriots host the Pittsburgh Steelers Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET, entering as seven-point favorites with Tom Brady under center after an eventful offseason, to say the least.

Ahead of the night and all its festivities, here's how we expect the night to unfold.

The Patriots will raise another banner.
AFC Championship Football

This much we know will happen. After last year's Super Bowl run, the team enters as defending champs once again. A pregame ceremony will honor last year's team, the banner will be raised, and Foxboro's fans will go bonkers. As for the game...

Tom Brady will hit the ground running.
After an offseason filled with question marks and doubt, would there be any other way for Tom Brady to open the season? The past two times Brady has had to face an opponent after adversity:
  • The first game after the New York Jets caught the Patriots spying on opponents after Week 1 of the 2007 season, Brady threw 25-of-31 and tossed three touchdowns in a 38-14 win over San Diego.
  • His season debut in 2009, after missing effectively the entire 2008 season with a torn ACL, was a 25-24 Pats win in which Brady threw 378 yards on 39 completions and a pair of TDs.

Ben Roethlisberger will come out slinging
This may not be a very bold prediction -- particularly considering Le'Veon Bell will be out due to suspension. The QB threw for 365 yards in last year's opener, completing 67 percent of his passes.

Markus Wheaton will be a factor.
Wild Card Playoffs - Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers

Antonio Brown will surely garner a bulk of the attention. With Martavis Bryant suspended, look for Markus Wheaton to be a speed threat against a mediocre Patriots secondary. The Pats have never faced Wheaton in person, and the 24-year-old should figure to receive the most targets of his career in the early going this season.

An unlikely candidate will receive the bulk of New England's carries.
With LaGarrette Blount suspended, Bill Belichick is without his primary back. Never one to fall into any opposing coach's trap, look for Belichick to mix up the backfield rotation with some names you may not have heard before -- former fourth-round pick James White is a candidate, as is Travaris Cadet.

New England will come away with the home victory -- but not by much.
Hours ahead of kickoff, the spread sits at a touchdown in favor of the Pats. Don't expect the difference to be even that much. Roethlisberger's experience and the Steelers' offensive approach will give the Pats about as much as they can handle defensively. But they won't drop this opener at home.

Prediction: Patriots 38, Steelers 34

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