Aside from a 10-story lighthouse beyond one of the end zones and adjacent pedestrian overpass modeled after Boston’s iconic Longfellow Bridge, Gillette Stadium has no distinguishing features.
The New England Patriots’ home field ranks 22nd among the 31 NFL venues in seating capacity, and it’ll be right in the middle in age at 15th by this time next year. According to recently-released fan ratings from online ticket broker SeatGeek, Gillette was 13th in “fan atmosphere.”
In its all-encompassing (albeit subjective) NFL stadium rankings, The Sporting News ranked Foxborough, Mass.-based Gillette smack dab in the middle at 16th.
In other words, it’s largely a league-average facility.
The team that plays there, though, is anything but.
“I think it’s just (another) stadium,” Pittsburgh Steelers guard Ramon Foster said, “that a really good team plays at.”
A stadium that the Steelers have had trouble in — a stadium where they have, thus far, found it impossible to beat a certain Hall of Fame quarterback in.
Tom Brady is perhaps the best quarterback of all time. And while Gillette Stadium was paid for via private funds coming from entities such as Patriots owner Robert Kraft and the Boston-based razor brand that it’s named after, make no mistake: it’s Brady’s home.
And that, more than anything, is why this otherwise-unremarkable, 66,829-seat venue located in an otherwise-inconspicuous suburban Massachusetts town is such a prominent stop for teams on their annual tour of opposing facilities.
And, likewise, why those teams so often leave with a loss.
“It’s just a stadium. It’s just like anywhere else,” linebacker Bud Dupree said in explaining opponents’ massive struggles over the 18-year history of Gillette. “It’s more that (the Patriots) are really good, moreso than the facility.
“And it’s just Brady, When he’s in there, he runs everything. It’s his home. He controls it. He’s the conductor, the choir director. He’s in control of it all, the whole atmosphere.”
Brady is the probably biggest reason why the Patriots are 135-24 at Gillette since they opened it with a 30-14 win against the Steelers in the 2002 primetime Week 1 matchup that featured a ceremonial banner-raising marking the Super Bowl they won seven months prior.
For the third time since, that scenario repeats itself 8:20 p.m. Sunday when the Steelers open their season at Gillette against the reigning Super Bowl champion Patriots.
Since that initial meeting there one day shy of exactly 17 years ago, the Steelers have gone 1-5, including the postseason, at Gillette. It’s far from a coincidence that that lone victory there — 33-10, against Matt Cassel-led New England on Nov. 30, 2008 — did not feature Brady, who was out because of a torn ACL.
The five Steelers-Patriots games in Foxborough that included Brady have not been pretty for the Steelers. They’ve lost them all by an aggregate score of 183-96 that equates, on average, to a 37-19 defeat.
Only one of the five losses has been by fewer than 19 points — and that one (the 2015 primetime NFL season opener) was 21-3 New England in the second half and included a Steelers touchdown with 2 seconds left to make it seem closer than it was.
“I’ve never thought of Gillette as a (hostile) place to play like Seattle or New Orleans,” Steelers veteran defensive lineman Tyson Alualu said. “But the team itself, you’ve always got to give respect to moreso to them and what they’re doing.”
Perhaps the only man among the 64 (including practice squad) in the Steelers’ locker room who played in a game at Foxborough and won said it best.
“I’ve said it before: Playing them at home is hard enough,” Ben Roethlisberger said. “To go to their place is almost impossible.”
Roethlisberger, statistically, is half right. Yes, beating Brady at Gillette is almost impossible, as his 109-18 regular-season record at the venue indicates.
But Brady’s Patriots are also 98-44 everywhere else over his career, meaning they also win about seven out of every 10 games they’ve played away from Gillette.
This is perhaps best exhibited by an analysis ESPN ran two years ago intended to examine which NFL teams experienced the best and worst home-field advantage.
What it found was that despite the Patriots having, by-far, the best winning percentage at Gillette (.849 currently) than any other team has had at its current home stadium, the true-home field advantage the Patriots enjoyed there (1.9 points per game) ranked 26th among the 32 NFL teams.
How can that be? Put simply: the machine-like Patriots have been elite no matter where they play. The crowd noise, sightlines, comforts of the home locker room or any other possible venue-specific advantages you can think of have little effect — the Patriots are probably going to win, anyway.
Especially when Brady is playing, as the Steelers know all too well.
“They’ve just won there a lot,” Steelers defensive captain Cameron Heyward said. “They’ve won a lot everywhere. I don’t look at any outside (stadium-specific) factors. They’ve got a good crowd, but they just play well at home, just like they play well everywhere.”