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Going For Two: Patriots to begin title defense Thursday

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski racked up 12 touchdowns last season for the Super Bowl champs. PHOTO COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Now that the saga known as Deflategate has reached its end — at least until a ruling by an appellate judge at the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals — Tom Brady and the New England Patriots can focus on their next challenge: the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Patriots will raise their fourth Super Bowl banner to the rafters at Gillette Stadium Thursday before they do battle with Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers and begin their drive for five.

However, this year’s Patriots have a much different makeup than the Super Bowl XLIX champions. Defensively, New England lost their two best defensive backs from 2014, Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis. Head coach Bill Belichick made Browner a free agent this offseason by not picking up the 31-year-old cornerback’s $2 million option after Browner made 25 tackles and an interception in his only season with New England. A few weeks later, on March 12, Browner and the New Orleans Saints reached an agreement on a three-year, $18 million contract, bringing an official end to his short-lived time as a Patriot.

The Revis situation was not much better for the defending champs, as they saw arguably the best corner in the game depart New England and return to the archrival New York Jets.

The Jets first displayed interest in the First Team All-Pro when owner Woody Johnson went on the record saying that the Jets would “love for Darrelle to come back.” While Johnson’s comment did lead to tampering charges and a $100,000 fine from the NFL, the owner’s words did not seem like an attempt to woo the former Jet back to the Meadowlands.

Almost immediately after the Pats’ 28-24 Super Bowl win over the Seattle Seahawks, they entered into discussions with Revis in an attempt to re-sign the cornerback. Contract negotiations grew when the Jets got involved and a bidding war began over the 30-year-old Pro Bowler.

On March 10, Revis signed a five-year, $70 million contract with the team that drafted him back in 2007. Rumors circulated that the Patriots offered Revis a similar deal but the former first-round pick went to New York due to the $39 million guaranteed in his contract.

New England’s defensive front seven also took a hit this offseason with the departure of one of its staples: Vince Wilfork. The nose tackle, who played 11 seasons in New England, was one of only two players, along with Brady, remaining from the Patriots’ Super Bowl XXXIX championship team. In mid-March, the University of Miami alum signed a two-year deal with the Houston Texans.

However, not everything is in shambles in Foxborough, as the Patriots selected Malcom Brown, a defensive tackle out of the University of Texas, with the 32nd overall pick in the NFL Draft. Brown is to replace Wilfork and, coming off a season in which he made 72 tackles and 6.5 sacks for the Longhorns, he is certainly capable of that.

New England also re-signed one of the league’s best safeties in Devin McCourty. After losing three key defensive players from last year’s squad, retaining McCourty was a necessity. While teams like the Philadelphia Eagles were reportedly interested in the former Pro Bowler, New England kept McCourty from reaching free agency by signing the defensive back to a five-year, $47.5 million contract. Combining McCourty with Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, the Patriots secondary looks good enough to play a bend-but-don’t-break style this year.

On the other side of the ball, not too much has changed for Brady and company. While there was worry that Tom Terrific would miss the first four games due to the now-null Deflategate suspension, Brady will take the field with his teammates Thursday night against the Steelers.

His weapons will look largely similar to last season’s as Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola all return to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. A big addition made to bolster the offense was tight end Scott Chandler. The former Buffalo Bill weighs in at 260 pounds and stands at a hulking 6-foot-7. Coming off a season in which he had 47 receptions and three touchdowns, Chandler looks to be a solid tight end option for an offense that already boasts one of the best in the NFL in Gronkowski.

New England will be without running back LeGarrette Blount for the first game as the former Oregon sensation is sitting out for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Additionally the Patriots will not be seeing wide receiver Brandon LaFell until Week 7 at the earliest. The former Carolina Panther was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list due to a foot injury suffered during last season’s playoff run.

Another season opener is upon the fans in New England, and dreams of a fifth Super Bowl loom large. With the defensive losses the Pats have suffered and the improvement of the three other teams in the AFC East, the task does look daunting. But with Brady leading the charge and Belichick conducting the orchestra, hope springs eternal in Foxborough.

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