tom brady new england patriots nfl gi NFL Kickoff 2015: The New England Patriots dodged a Tom Brady bullet

This week’s NFL Kickoff 2015 not only ushers in this year’s regular season but could also serve as a preview of the AFC Championship game.

That is, if both participants can resolve a few question marks.

The Thursday (Sept. 10), opener on NBC, pits Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots against Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.

Of course, the reigning champs appear to have dodged the bullet last week when a judge overturned Brady’s suspension for the season’s first four games after the quarterback failed to cooperate with investigators probing the deflation of footballs during last season’s AFC title game.

But at 38, there is some question as to how much Brady has left in the tank. And in preseason, he was less than stellar. Of course, a 400-yard game or two to start the regular season would lay those concerns to rest.

A bigger issue for the Pats may be their defense. During the offseason, the secondary lost star defenders Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington, while the line saw the departure of Vince Wilfork, thus turning what was a strength into a potential Achilles heel.

“I think a lot of pressure is now put on [defensive end] Chandler Jones and some of those guys to really go after the quarterback to help an inexperienced secondary,” says Hines Ward, a studio analyst for NBC Sports and a former Steelers wide receiver, to Zap2it. “You lose both Browner and Revis, I mean, these guys are known to be lockdown guys that were very disruptive in the passing game. Now you’ve got guys who are unproven … . So it’ll be real interesting to see coach [Bill] Belichick and how he handles (things).”

As for Pittsburgh’s chances this season, the retired Steeler great is excited –- but with one qualifier.

“They probably have the most experience coming back -– as well as the Green Bay Packers -– on the offensive side of the ball than any other team in the league,” Ward says. “Defensively, they’re a huge question mark. They drafted all these linebackers high in the draft. No Troy Polamalu [their newly retired star safety], no veteran guys like [retired cornerback] Ike Taylor in the secondary. [Defensive coordinator Keith] Butler takes over now, so it’ll be real interesting to see what they do.

“But it always starts with the front seven on the defensive side of the ball with [defensive end] Cam Heyward and some of those guys,” he continues. “If they can put pressure and allow those linebackers to just play scot free and run sideline to sideline and make plays, maybe I look for Pittsburgh to have a pretty good year.”

Posted by:George Dickie