FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — There was a patchwork offensive line in front of him and a place-holder at running back behind him.

But when Tom Brady looked to the slots to his right and left Thursday night, he saw two sure things. And that was plenty for the star quarterback of the New England Patriots, who began their Super Bowl defense with a 28-21 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium.

“Gronk” was trending on Twitter and treading all over the Steelers. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was so dominant that he scored three touchdowns and yet his biggest contribution was diving on a young teammate’s fumble.

Wide receiver Julian Edelman was his usual reliable self, somehow getting open time after time in the teeth of the Pittsburgh defense and catching 11 passes for 97 yards. He made the once-proud Steel Curtain look like a Steel Cartoon.

And the Patriots fans, all 66,829 of them, loved every minute.

“He’s such a big target, he’s got a good catch radius and a lot of times if I just put it up close to him he catches it,” Brady said of Gronkowski.

Pittsburgh did expose a defense breaking in two new starting cornerbacks in Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler. The front seven wasn’t nearly as stout as advertised, either. Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams found enough holes to gain 127 yards. Ben Roethlisberger passed for 351 yards, a touchdown and an interception by Duron Harmon.

But Pittsburgh also hurt itself. Josh Scobee missed field-goal attempts from 44 and 46 yards in the first half. Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey lost an easy touchdown when he knelt with one foot out of bounds to catch a pass in the end zone.

This night was New England’s.

Brady, who led the team onto the field just as their fourth championship banner was uncovered, was superb as usual. The 38-year-old made his 14th consecutive opening-game start, only after fending off a threatened four-game suspension.

But he knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Starting center Bryan Stork is out for at least eight games with a concussion. His likely replacement, Ryan Wendell, was declared inactive while recovering from shoulder surgery. That put undrafted rookie David Andrews in at center, with rookie Tre’ Jackson starting in Wendell’s right guard spot. The line held up relatively well; Brady was sacked only twice, but he certainly helped matters by quickly releasing his passes, more often than not to Edelman.

At tailback, New England turned to NFL vagabond Dion Lewis, an offseason free-agent acquisition, while LeGarrette Blount served a one-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Lewis, a slithery 5-foot-8, 195 pounds, carried 15 times for 69 yards. But it was his fumble after catching a pass over the middle that almost turned the game around for Pittsburgh.

If not for Gronk.

At the 1-yard line, with New England leading 21-14, Lewis was hit by Mike Mitchell and the ball popped out and laid on the ground near the goal line for two tense seconds. Gronkowski, who was running a pattern down the right sideline, saw it before the Steelers did, and raced toward the middle of the field to fall on it. Three plays later, he was catching his third touchdown pass in the left corner of the end zone to seal the victory.

Gronkowski caught five passes for 94 yards. But nothing mattered as much as covering up for Lewis’ mistake. It was the ultimate example of a winning play.

And so the Patriots are 1-0, with 15 games to go on their quest for a fifth title. Look for more Brady and Gronk, plus new tight end Scott Chandler, who caught the other Brady touchdown pass.

“They’re a tough matchup down there because obviously their size and their ability to get open in one-on-one coverage,” Brady said. “Those guys are big, they’re tough, they’re physical. Hopefully we can keep it going.”

 

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