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New England Patriots put 20-year streak on the line Sunday against Pittsburgh Steelers

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Streak of 20 years at risk: The last time the Patriots started a season losing their first two games was 2001, which is the longest active NFL streak without starting a season 0-2.

That’s on the line Sunday when the team visits the Pittsburgh Steelers (CBS, 1 p.m. ET). Some, such as former Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich, have dubbed it a “must-win” game when considering New England faces the Baltimore Ravens in Week 3 and Green Bay Packers in Week 4.

Current players aren’t going that far but acknowledge they can’t afford to dig themselves too deep of a hole.

“We’ve had a great deal of urgency all week, and I think we understand the situation we’ve put ourselves in,” longtime captain Matthew Slater said. “The last thing we want to do is come out and play the game like we did last week [in a 20-7 loss to the Miami Dolphins].”

In a notable NFL-wide storyline, the three teams with the longest streaks of avoiding a 0-2 start are in jeopardy of having them broken on Sunday: Patriots (20 years), Green Bay Packers (15) and Dallas Cowboys (11).

The Packers host the Chicago Bears, while the Cowboys -- without injured starting quarterback Dak Prescott -- welcome the Cincinnati Bengals.

Patriots players conveyed a measure of calmness and confidence as the week of practice wound down.

“The energy is great,” starting defensive tackle Davon Godchaux told ESPN.com. “It’s one week. This is a marathon. Every game counts, but the big ones are in November and December. Not that we don’t want to win early on, because you always want to take care of business, but it’s a long season.

“We have a chance to bounce back against a great Pittsburgh team. We’ll be ready to play.”

Godchaux’s point is well-taken. However, the only way games will be meaningful in November and December is if the team stays afloat in September and October.

And if the Patriots slip Sunday in Pittsburgh, they’d have to counter some challenging recent history. Since the NFL expanded to a 14-team playoff format in 2020, no team that has started a season 0-2 has qualified for the playoffs. Since 1990, only 11.3% of teams that started 0-2 advanced to the postseason.

Of course, the Patriots famously accomplished the feat in 2001 when they went on to win their first Super Bowl championship.

2. Strange view: Patriots first-round pick Cole Strange didn’t have to look far to see the challenge he’s up against Sunday versus Pittsburgh. On the Steelers’ first defensive play in their season-opening win against the Bengals, 12-year veteran defensive lineman Cameron Heyward rushed past rookie Bengals left guard Cordell Volson to register a sack.

The Heyward-Strange matchup will be critical to keeping quarterback Mac Jones out of harm's way.

“I’ve studied him a lot and I’m going to continue to study him. He has a really good bull rush,” Strange said Friday in between bites of a sushi roll with salmon, avocado and cucumber.

“But I feel like there’s a point where you don’t want to wig yourself out. He puts his pants on just like everybody else. I think it’s most important that I’m doing the correct thing. It’s making sure I’m in a strong position, with good leverage, not getting too high. It’s taking care of my thing versus over-worrying about who I’m going against.”

3. Flores factor: Former Patriots assistant coach Brian Flores is in his first season with the Steelers as a senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach, and his presence has been noted in New England. Flores was 4-2 against the Patriots as Miami head coach from 2019 to 2021, and his aggressiveness with pressure on QBs is well documented.

“I think BFlo is doing a great job of blending into that defensive unit,” Patriots offensive line coach/playcaller Matt Patricia said. “Obviously Teryl Austin does a great job coordinating, but there’s definitely some influence there.”

4. Catching up with Trent: Starting Patriots left tackle Trent Brown cleared up a few things in a locker room chat, saying he didn’t speak with reporters after the season-opening loss because he was rushing to visit with his family before boarding team buses. And while some might have taken his short Monday video conference as a sign he isn’t happy, he said that isn’t the case. He told me he takes pride to be entrusted to protect Jones’ blind side, and that he’s committed to doing a better job. “Why wouldn’t I want to play left tackle?” he asked.

5. Gunner reunion: Former Patriots All-Pro punt returner Gunner Olszewski, now with the Steelers, didn’t go the clich√© route when asked what it will be like to face his old team. “Any time you play the ex, you want to show out,” he said.

Patriots players are looking forward to seeing him -- and stopping him.

“There’s no one in this league that appreciates what he can do more than I do,” said Slater, New England’s special teams captain. “I just love his story, his journey, to where he is now. He’s in the upper echelon of returners in this league. The thing that sets him apart is his mentality. He has no fear back there. He’s going to be aggressive. His football IQ is through the roof. We think we understand how we need to play him. It’s going to take all 11 players on the field to be locked in.”

6. Welker’s mark: Wes Welker’s 249 receptions in his first 35 games with the Patriots (2007-08) is the highest total in NFL history for any player in his first 35 games with a team, according to Elias. Stefon Diggs can top it with 12 catches in the Buffalo Bills’ home game against the Tennessee Titans on Monday night -- his 35th game with Buffalo. Surely, Titans coach Mike Vrabel won’t be game-planning with the intent to preserve Welker’s record, but whatever he cooks up to slow Diggs could go a long way toward helping his former Patriots teammate stay on top.

7. Slater’s Steelers visit: When Slater was a free agent in 2018, he visited the Steelers. It was the only free-agent visit he has taken in his 15-year NFL career, spent entirely with the Patriots. “That was a unique time in my career. I never envisioned myself playing elsewhere, but things happen in this league that are unforeseen,” Slater said. “I grew up really disliking them, because they beat my dad [Jackie Slater] in a Super Bowl, but I have the utmost respect for them, and Mike Tomlin.”

Tomlin on the younger Slater: "A legendary special teams player. I used to say 'legendary of this generation.' I no longer include 'of this generation.'"

8. Emergency snapper: Belichick once said “you don’t need insurance until you need insurance.” That line came to mind when watching the Steelers’ 23-20 season-opening win over the Bengals, which likely wouldn’t have happened if Cincinnati didn’t lose long-snapper Clark Harris to a right biceps injury. That thrust emergency snapper Mitchell Wilcox into action, and his high, slow snaps contributed to a blocked extra point (that would have won the game with no time left) and a missed 29-yard field goal in overtime (that also would have won the game). For the Patriots, defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. and linebacker Mack Wilson Sr. have worked as emergency snappers in training camp.

9. Cardona’s value: Joe Cardona has handled the Patriots’ snapper duties in every game since he was selected in the fifth round of the 2015 draft, providing the club with ideal consistency. The Chargers’ Josh Harris is the NFL’s highest-paid long-snapper ($1.4 million average per year), while Cardona is in the final season of a four-year pact that averages $1.07 million per season. When a player like the Bengals’ Harris is knocked out of a game, and it essentially costs the team a victory, it highlights the often-overlooked value of the position -- and, closer to home, how important Cardona has been to New England.

10. Did You Know: The snap-hold-kick operation for field goals generally unfolds in 1.2 to 1.4 seconds. Anything slower is deemed at a greater risk for a potential block, and anything faster is susceptible to a mishap.