FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — On a night their fans came poised to party and vent pent-up frustrations, the Patriots settled for coming ready to play. Together, the combination produced a victorious night, a celebratory scene, and a fairly convincing performance as Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champions unveiled more than just another banner at Gillette Stadium on Thursday.
Also put on display was the notion that there will be no hangover in Foxboro this season, not from New England’s fourth Super Bowl title, its draining seven-month-long Deflategate saga, or anything else that might serve to complicate the brand new 2015 season. That much was made clear with New England’s thorough 28-21 victory over visiting Pittsburgh in the NFL’s much-anticipated opener.
The man who almost missed this one was of course the story of the game, and you almost had to suspend belief to absorb Brady’s vintage showing: four touchdown passes, a club-record 19 consecutive completions at one point, and a near flawless 25 of 32, 288-yard passing performance against the defending AFC North champions. In the game’s second and third quarters, Brady never once threw an incompletion, dismantling the Pittsburgh defense like it was one of his old cell phones.
New England may not wind up being the class of the league once again this season, but on this night at least, the franchise’s longest off-season ever made no apparent impact on the balance of power in the NFL’s heavyweight class. Seven months after their latest Super Bowl win, the Patriots shrugged off their many player defections, the legal battle with the league office that refused to end, and any possibility that their franchise quarterback would be a distracted shell of himself against the Steelers.
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Who knows if the early narrative that New England’s anger and resentment will translate into execution and domination all season long—a veritable 2015 revenge tour—but you couldn’t disprove that theory based on Thursday’s score-settling performance. For a team of mostly non-talkers, it was an emphatic statement the Patriots made against Pittsburgh, with Brady finding tight end Rob Gronkowski three times for touchdowns, and New England going 4 for 4 in the red zone.
“It was a pretty special night,” said Brady, who heard the crowd chant his name several times throughout the game. “I was excited, the team was excited. I love being out there with my teammates, playing in something I really looked forward to.”
The exultant Patriots crowd didn’t just reserve their chants for Brady. There were both cheers and jeers on this night. In the fourth quarter, with victory within reach, a sing-song taunt of “Where is Roger?’‘ rang out through the stadium. Aimed of course at absent NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who wisely chose to skip the season-opening festivities in his own personal lion’s den, the chant served to remind everyone that what Goodell might have tried to take away with the league’s harsh Deflategate penalties, Judge Richard Berman and Brady gave back.
Brady had a less than stellar preseason, but he showed no signs of rust or strain against the Steelers. It was his 23rd career game with four touchdown passes or more, tying him with Brett Favre for third most in the NFL record books. And his connection with Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman was razor shape, with Gronk catching five passes for 94 yards and those three scores, and Edelman adding a team-high 11 receptions for 97 yards. All told, Brady found seven different Patriots receivers, playing into the fourth quarter with just two incompletions on 23 attempts.
“You don’t really forget how to play football in the seven months,” Brady said of the off-season. As if there was ever a doubt.
But even on this night of vindication in Patriots World, there was yet another incident that led some to question whether the team’s reputation for seeking every possible competitive edge—both legal and otherwise—was again on display. The Steelers coaching staff in the first half had great difficulty getting their headsets to work properly, reporting that they were at times receiving the Patriots radio broadcast instead of their own communications. The league is responsible for the operation of the in-stadium communication, but that didn’t completely appease Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin, who said it’s “always the case” that the headsets malfunction at Gillette Stadium.
The problem was eventually fixed, with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick saying after the game that his team endured balky in-stadium communication as well. “We never get that answer (from the officials as to what went wrong),” Belichick said. “They just try to fix it and tell you if it’s up or down.”
League spokesman Michael Signora after the game blamed the Steelers’ problems on “a stadium power infrastructure, which was exacerbated by the inclement weather..... Once the power issue was addressed, the equipment functioned properly with no additional issues.” Interestingly, Signora did not address the Patriots’ issues, leading perhaps to the conclusion that Pittsburgh’s difficulties came first and were deemed more significant than New England’s.
It did indeed rain before and during the game at Gillette, but it only dampened the field and not the enthusiasm of those in the stands or on the New England sideline. There was a festive atmosphere and a feeling of relief in the air, after Brady last week eluded the four-game suspension that the NFL tried to impose on him in the ball deflation scandal. At one point in the giddy pre-game hours, NFLPA lead attorney Jeffrey Kessler was walking around the field to a thunderous ovation from Patriots fans, being feted as the man who kept Brady active and thus saved New England’s season.
But now that Brady is back, and looks as dangerous as ever, the apprehension and anxiety level should be receding somewhat in Foxboro. All is well in the world again, and if Brady can focus so successfully on the task of defending the Super Bowl title after the off-season tumult he endured, what excuse do the rest of the Patriots have for not following suit?
“I worked out a lot with (Tom) a lot this off-season and he’s the same old guy,” Edelman said. “It just shows you how mentally tough he really is to be dealing with what he’s dealt with in the past and to be able to come out here and lead us. He’s always a firecracker.”
Brady the firecracker went off on Thursday night against the Steelers, and the rest of the league had to take notice of the familiar damage that ensued. For obvious reasons, it’s going to be a short fuse this season in New England, and we might have just witnessed the only warning that has to be issued.