The NFL season has finally begun with the return of Tom Brady

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CLEVELAND — Tom Brady led the Patriots out of the tunnel here on a crisp, sun-splashed Sunday, the first one back from his suspension, the first day that ends deflate-gate, the first start for a New England season that points to the same loftiest of goals – Super Bowl or bust.

On his opening drive, he went 4-of-5 for 65 yards and the Patriots scored a touchdown. On his second drive, he went 4-of-5 for 64 yards and a touchdown. On his third drive, he went 5-for-5 for 56 yards and another touchdown.

It was all en route to a comeback performance of 28-of-40 for 406 yards and three touchdowns in a 33-13 stomping of the Cleveland Browns.

By the end of that third drive – leading 23-7, the game was essentially over, everyone just waiting for the inevitable formalities: 400-plus receiving yards getting spread to seven different receivers, Brady watching much of the fourth quarter safely on the sidelines, Bill Belichick holding a postgame news conference where he was loath to even acknowledge Brady did much, let alone that his return was somehow even notable.

“Our expectations are to come out here and perform as a team,” Belichick said to a question about if Brady lived up to expectations. He’d already opened his remarks by mentioning phrases such as “good complimentary football” and “all three phases” and “played good defense against the run” without uttering the name of his quarterback.

Tom Brady hooked up with Martellus Bennett three times for touchdowns. (Getty Images)
Tom Brady hooked up with Martellus Bennett three times for touchdowns. (Getty Images)

The questioner noted that he meant Brady’s expectations specifically, you know, the guy who spent the last month banned from the team facility?

“I meant the whole team,” Belichick shot back. “That includes everybody. Why else would we come out here?”

Oh, Brady is back and so are the Pats; that is, if they were ever lost.

New England is 4-1 and will finally now begin trying to hit its stride. If anything, the expectations for a Super Bowl title will be as high as ever, and this is a club that’s appeared in at least the conference championship game five years running. This team may be better than any of those teams, and that includes the Super Bowl champs two years back.

Belichick will remind you that Brady wasn’t perfect – the coach deemed the offense “sporadic.” Brady was awfully good though. “He didn’t look rusty to me,” said receiver Chris Hogan, who among his four catches snagged a perfectly placed deep ball for 63 yards.

Maybe most importantly, the controversy over what did or didn’t happen with the Patriots’ footballs at the AFC championship game played in January of 2015 is finally, officially at least, behind the franchise and its star quarterback. All machinations are done. All penalties served. Brady wasn’t going to emote about much of anything on Sunday, but there can be little doubt that it’s freeing to no longer have deflate-gate hang over his head.

“I’ve just moved on, man,” Brady said. “I just tried to play a good game.”

Brady wasn’t talking about whether there was any motivation to be pulled from the scandal, be it Sunday or the rest of the season. The chance to show up the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell for a scandal Brady has long denied even occurred in the first place, let alone had anything to do with, remains though, whether he speaks to it or not.

“This isn’t any time for me to reflect,” Brady said. “I’m just happy we won today. I’m happy to win anytime we play. I have a job to do. There was no point in looking back at anything, you know whether we won Super Bowls or lost championship games or the last four weeks. None of it matters. Just go out and do the best I can do every week.”

So there is this: if anyone in the league, from the commissioner on down, hoped a suspension of Brady or a stripping of a draft pick from the Patriots or the circus that the entire scandal brought could rattle football’s most consistent force, well, they might as well throw another quarter in the wishing well.

Sunday was a business trip, not an afternoon of avenging anger or prideful remembrance. Brady played with his typical intensity. His most demonstrative act was signaling for a first down after a mad dash from a pass rush and just past the chains.

“Well, I don’t run much,” he explained. “So when I do … I was a little excited.”

And sure, Cleveland offered an ideal stage for a comeback – nice weather, a winless opponent, plenty of available tickets for Patriots fans to scoop. This is still a real regular-season victory, no matter the rehab assignment with a Triple-A vibe. When you can pull your starting quarterback with 7:45 remaining in the fourth quarter as throngs and throngs of your fans provide a road symphony of “Brady, Brady” chants … it’s a good day.

“The team played really well,” Brady said. “It was fun being a part of it. It was a fun week. Good to be back doing what I love to do.”

The Patriots defense looks improved from a year ago – it’s allowing just 14.8 points a game and against the Browns delivered a safety, an interception and two sacks. Meanwhile Brady can again enjoy a potent two tight-end passing attack, with offseason acquisition Martellus Bennett playing the role Aaron Hernandez once did, causing nightmares for defensive coordinators who need to account for him and Rob Gronkowksi.

Gronk had five catches for 109 yards and said he’s still getting healthy. Bennett had six for 67, including three touchdowns.

“A tough match-up for those other teams,” Brady said.

That was about as boastful as things got. Belichick talked about the need for improvement. Brady talked about shaking off whatever flakes of rust prevented the perfect game. In the locker room, players mumbled about the upcoming week of practice and fixing mistakes.

Across the way, the Browns could only look on wistfully.

“The best team in the NFL right there,” Terrelle Pryor said. “Best team in the NFL.”

Fully operational, at last. The 2016 NFL season has finally begun.

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