The last time they played a game that mattered, the New England Patriots pulled off the biggest and most improbable comeback in Super Bowl history.
So far be it for them to write off the underdog Kansas City Chiefs in Thursday night’s NFL season opener at Gillette Stadium.
(And even if the Patriots were supremely confident heading into the game — which would be understandable in light of their history on this high-profile stage — they wouldn’t dream of saying so.)
“Opening day’s always a time where you have a lot of questions [and] butterflies,” New England coach Bill Belichick told reporters this week in comments far more colorful than his typical drab gray. “Lots of unknowns on our team. Lots of unknowns on their team.
“Lots of unknowns when the two collide.”
And collide they will, as the nitro-burning Patriots offense meets a red-brick Kansas City defense in a nationally televised showdown. Belichick and the Chiefs’ Andy Reid are the only active head coaches with at least 10 victories on kickoff weekend.
The Patriots have won their last eight home openers on kickoff weekend, and Brady is 4-2 against the Chiefs in the regular season, including 3-0 at home.
Even with star receiver Julian Edelman out for the season with a knee injury, Brady is in line for a landmark year. He’s one of four quarterbacks in NFL history with at least 450 touchdown passes. The top two are retired — Peyton Manning (539) and Brett Favre (508) — and New Orleans’ Drew Brees is nine ahead of Brady with 465.
“I think that’s what makes a good offense — having a lot of versatility,” Brady said recently. “I’ve said for a long time, I throw to where the guys are open. If they double someone, everyone else is singled across the board, so you’ve just got to be careful who you double. If we’ve got the right play called against a certain defense, it’s tough to stop us.”
Kansas City has a seasoned defense that can crank up the pressure on a quarterback, which many people believe is the only recipe to beat Brady. The Chiefs have a host of defensive playmakers in Derrick Johnson, Eric Berry, Marcus Peters and Justin Houston.
“They’ve got all the intangibles, especially defensively,” Patriots receiver Danny Amendola said. “They’ve got good cornerbacks that can cover, they’ve got safeties that can tackle, they have linebackers that can run, D-linemen that can rush, so everybody’s going to be tested, and it’s right out of the gate. So we’ve got to jump in. We can’t just dip our toe in the water.”
On offense, Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith has a star tight end of his own in Travis Kelce, who led all players at his position last season with 1,125 yards receiving. He was ranked third in the league among all players in yards after the catch.
Kelce and Gronkowski are arguably the two best in the business.
“I just try and go out there and be myself,” Kelce told reporters. “Rob’s a heck of a player. Everyone is always comparing the two [of us] and saying, ‘Well, if he stays healthy, if this, if that.’ I just hope he stays healthy and goes out there and plays to the best of his ability because I love the competition.”
In Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs have an offensive and special-teams threat who sends chills down the collective spine of coordinators around the league.
Still, the Patriots are in their comfort zone — at home, in the spotlight, opening the season. The Chiefs will have to beat the odds to emerge victorious.
The Patriots know that can be done, of course. They just have to think back to February.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer