Whether sprinting out of the tunnel for warmups, watching former teammates and the Patriots owner carrying Lombardi Trophies, or tearing apart the Steelers, Tom Brady relished every moment of this NFL season opener.
”It was a pretty special night,” said Brady, who threw for four touchdowns, three to favorite target Rob Gronkowski, in a 28-21 victory Thursday night over undermanned and generally ineffective Pittsburgh. ”I was excited, our whole team was excited. We haven’t had one of these games in a long time.”
It was as if he never was away. Of course, he never really was, and with ”Deflategate” behind him, the star quarterback was back to his unstoppable self, going 25 of 32 for 288 yards.
”It’s always fun being out there and getting an opportunity to go play,” added Brady, whose 161 victories are tops for a starting quarterback with one franchise in NFL history. He set a team-record with 19 straight completions; and he had his 23rd game with four or more touchdown passes, third all-time along with Brett Favre.
”We took advantage of it. It was a good win.”
His four-game league suspension overturned by a federal judge one week ago, the three-time Super Bowl MVP was in midseason – or postseason – form. He led drives of 90 and 64 yards for scores on passes to Gronkowski. Gronkowski also recovered a fumble by running back Dion Lewis at the Pittsburgh 1 before his final TD.
”Anytime they don’t cover Gronk, he usually gets it,” Brady noted with a smile.
Gronkowski insisted this night was all about Brady.
”Everything he’s been going through all offseason, he just came out and he was on fire,” Gronkowski said. ”I don’t know his stats or anything, but he was hitting all of the open guys, reading the defense well, calling the right plays.
”He’s just unreal.”
Showing some love for his other tight end, newcomer Scott Chandler, Brady hit him for a 1-yard score to cap an 80-yard march with the second-half kickoff.
The outcome added to a festive mood at Gillette Stadium, despite persistent showers that didn’t bother the home team. Before kickoff, the Patriots unveiled their fourth championship banner as owner Robert Kraft and former players Troy Brown, Willie McGinest and Ty Law carried out New England’s four Super Bowl trophies.
Fourth-quarter crowd chants of ”Where is Roger?” mocked Commissioner Roger Goodell over ”Deflategate.” Goodell did not attend.
Neither, it seemed, did the Steel Curtain. Only occasionally did it come close to clamping down on Brady, yielding 361 yards overall. Third-stringer Lewis rushed for 69 yards, and leading receiver Julian Edelman had 11 catches for 97 yards. Gronkowski had 94 yards.
”We’ve got to finish a few instances better,” coach Mike Tomlin said. ”I thought we got a little frazzled at times. Some of the young people have got to get better in a hurry.”
Minus two All-Pros on offense – running back Le’Veon Bell (suspended) and center Maurkice Pouncey (injured) – and without suspended receiver Martavis Bryant, Pittsburgh moved the ball decently, gaining 464 yards. But it never really was close.
Ben Roethlisberger threw for 351 yards and a late TD to All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown. Backup DeAngelo Williams rushed for 127 yards.
Tomlin was angry after the game, complaining that coaches couldn’t communicate because they were hearing the Patriots radio broadcast over their headsets. Patriots coaches also complained about similar troubles. The league said it was a temporary problem caused in part by the weather. For years, opposing teams have complained about having headset problems in Gillette Stadium.
Pittsburgh had moved the ball decisively on its first drive, but things collapsed after Brown was sacked on a trick play. The drive fizzled, with a missed 44-yarder by Josh Scobee.
Scobee, acquired on Sept. 1 from Jacksonville, also missed from 46 yards and connected from 44 and 24. But the damage was done earlier.