FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — It was as if Tom Brady never was away.
Of course, he never really was, and with “Deflategate” behind him and the Patriots, the star quarterback was back to his unstoppable self.
Brady threw for four touchdowns, three to favorite target Rob Gronkowski, and Super Bowl champion New England beat undermanned and generally ineffective Pittsburgh 28-21 in the NFL’s season opener Thursday night.
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. The All-Pro tight end scored from the 16, 6 and 1. He also recovered a fumble by running back Dion Lewis at the Pittsburgh 1 before his final TD.
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. Brady has 161 victories, 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.
The outcome added to a festive mood at Gillette Stadium, despite persistent rain showers that didn’t bother the home team. Before kickoff, the Patriots unveiled their fourth championship banner as owner Robert Kraft and three former players carried out the most coveted prizes in the trophy case: New England’s four Lombardis.
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. Third-string running back Dion Lewis rushed for 69 yards, and leading receiver Julian Edelman had 11 catches for 97 yards. Gronkowski had 94 yards.
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. But it never really was close.
The Patriots even sacked someone other than Ben Roethlisberger, taking down All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown as he tried to pass on a trick play during the game’s opening drive. Pittsburgh had moved the ball decisively downfield before the play lost 8 yards, and 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.