Greg Cote

Greg Cote’s Thursday NFL pick: Steelers at Patriots

The NFL, launching its 96th year, has seldom if ever begun so eager to get past the controversy that dogged its offseason but so unlikely to accomplish that goal with its marquee Kickoff Weekend opener. That’s because Tom Brady and Patriots, hosting Thursday night’s game, were the epicenter of “Deflategate” — with Brady only starting because a federal court last week overturned his four-game suspension.

NBC’s talking heads will have plenty to yak about before they ever get around to football and could use a lawyer in the booth. Beaten commissioner Roger Goodell won’t even attend so as not to add to the distraction. Cannot confirm the game balls will be transported to midfield in a Brink’s truck by armed guards to avoid surreptitious last-second deflation.

Meantime, an ESPN investigation this week reopened the old wound of New England’s 2007 “Spygate” conviction as Bill Belichick’s defending Super Bowl champions had more unwanted headlines to deal with.

How much does distraction weigh against a team?

Let’s all find out together.

STEELERS (0-0) at PATRIOTS (0-0)

Line: NE by 7.

Cote’s pick: NE 30-24.

TV: 8:30 p.m. Thursday, NBC.

The courts said Roger Goodell dispensed “his own brand of industrial justice.” Now it’s Tom Brady’s turn to dispense HIS own brand of the gridiron variety. Thinking Patriots in a rout is understandable. Brady is 11-2 in season openers and is 3-0 vs. Pittsburgh in Foxborough by an average margin of 20 points. Plus the Steelers are missing top RB Le’Veon Bell for a couple of games. I’m hunching Pittsburgh sneaks in under the betting line, though. Pats are test-driving three new starters in their defensive backfield, and I like Ben Roethlisberger to exploit that enough to keep this thing competitive. Brady and Big Ben together have won six Super Bowl titles. If we can get past Deflategate, Spygate and a hiding commissioner, this looks like a much-needed terrific opening night for the beleaguered NFL as it sets sail toward Super Bowl 50.

Greg Cote and the Upset Bird (“Aaawwwk!”) launch their 25th season of Friday NFL predictions this week. Consider yourself warned.

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