Newton has played without go-to tight end Greg Olsen for most of the season.

He had to deal with a midseason trade for his supposed top wideout, Kelvin Benjamin. The Panthers added a dynamic cog in Christian McCaffrey but stripped away outside deep threats beyond breakout wideout Devin Funchess.

I love this city. I love this organization, Thomas said. They’ve given me the opportunity to be who I always wanted to be and I can’t thank them enough. So there’s no hard feelings to anybody in this city or anybody in this organization. And I’m glad I’m back. Like I always said, it’s genuine love, and that’s — that’s for the rest of my life here.

The fans gave him a standing ovation when his face flashed on the jumbotron and the whole evening seemed like a nice bit of closure before the main event on Feb. 11 when he should be back to his old self for the rematch. Now that I’m back playing you all have something else to write about, he said.

The Steelers are forced to punt after they are backed up by a holding penalty and a false start. The Patriots will start their drive at their 29 with 7:38 remaining.

The Patriots come up short on a third-and-6 pass from Brady to James White. But, instead of kicking a field goal, New England elects to go for it. On the fourth-down play, Brady connects with Rob Gronkowski for a 10-yard gain to keep the drive alive. The Patriots now have it at the Steelers 6.

Touchdown, Steelers. Pittsburgh drives 78 yards and chews up over 8:30 of game action before Martavis Bryant pulls in a Roethlisberger one-handed for a 4-yard touchdown. The Steelers take a 17-10 lead with 25 seconds to play before halftime.

That balance is even more critical this year since Boston has so much young talent. Jaylen Brown has improved in giant strides, and Jayson Tatum has exceeded all reasonable expectations. The loss of Hayward thrust the two into larger roles, and they have delivered. That early success bodes well for the future.

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