A New England Patriots' fan holds a sign referring to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell before an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Stephan Savoia
September 10, 2015

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Everything was in place for the New England Patriots to celebrate their fourth Super Bowl championship in the NFL opener.

The four Vince Lombardi Trophies were on the field. Another banner was unveiled on the facade. Tom Brady was calling out plays in the huddle.

And commissioner Roger Goodell's seat was empty.

The Patriots turned their thoughts from ''Deflategate'' to the defense of their Super Bowl title on Thursday night with a pregame ceremony full of flags and fireworks and a quartet of shiny trophies. The first three came out with red jacketed members of the team's hall of fame, and owner Robert Kraft carried the fourth out himself.

As he did, the 2014 banner was uncovered, taking its place above the south end zone next to those from 2001, 2003 and 2004.

The ceremony capped a circuitous seven months since the team last appeared on the field on Jan. 18 for the AFC championship game against Indianapolis. Shortly after beating the Colts 45-7, the Patriots were accused of using improperly inflated footballs in the game.

What followed was one of the stranger chapters in the history of the nation's most powerful sports league, a saga that stretched through the Super Bowl and lingered until last week. After hundreds of pages of investigative reports and court transcripts - all generating millions of dollars of billable hours for lawyers on all sides - a federal judge vacated Brady's four-game suspension and cleared him to take the field for Thursday's opener.

Brady drew a large cheer when he came out for pregame warmups, and union lawyers Jeffrey Kessler and DeMaurice Smith were also welcomed like heroes. (Goodell, who skipped the game to avoid becoming a distraction, was mocked in the fourth quarter with a chant of ''Where is Roger?'')

The rain-soaked trophy ceremony featured cheerleaders performing an Irish step dance to the Dropkick Murphys. Former Patriots Willie McGinest, Ty Law and Troy Brown joined Kraft as trophy-bearers.

Although the smoke from the fireworks made it difficult for those in the stadium to see, the baubles got a big cheer from the crowd. But it was no match for the reception Brady received when he took the field for the Patriots' first offensive series.

Fans chanted ''Brady'' until the three-time Super Bowl MVP motioned for them to quiet down so his teammates could hear the play. He threw for four touchdowns, completing a team-record 19 straight passes at one point, and New England began its title defense with a 28-21 victory over Pittsburgh.

Goodell, a longtime Kraft ally, angered the owner and the team's fans with the botched investigation in the scandal that came to be known as ''Deflategate.'' On the day U.S. District Judge Richard Berman vacated Brady's suspension, Goodell said he would skip the traditional kickoff weekend opener for the first time since he ascended to the league's top job.

Instead, the commissioner was planning to see the Bears and Packers in Chicago, leaving the New England fans to mock him in abstentia.



AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and AP NFL Twitter feed: www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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