CLEVELAND (AP) — Well before he had thrown a pass that counted this season, Tom Brady was hearing cheers, even on the road.
Then he led his New England Patriots to a touchdown Sunday. And another. And another — in the first half.
Where you been, Tom? Clearly, sharpening his already prodigious passing skills.
From the beginning, it was the same Brady who has terrorized the NFL for 17 seasons. He put together his eighth career 400-yard passing game, and hit Martellus Bennett for three touchdowns in a 33-13 victory over Cleveland. He even scrambled for a first down in the third period and did a mini-Usain Bolt celebration on the sideline.
On his first series Sunday following serving a four-game suspension in the “Deflategate” scandal, Brady listened to a loud ovation from the thousands of Patriots fans in the crowd at First Energy Stadium. He then hit his first three throws and four of five, with the incompletion a drop by James White.
The capper was a 1-yard run by LeGarrette Blount to make it 7-0, after which Brady pumped his arms as he looked to the Patriots’ sideline, hugged Rob Gronkowski, then bumped helmets with Blount.
Brady went right back to work on the next two New England possessions, looking as sharp as if this were a Super Bowl, of which he has won four. His throws were crisp, particularly on a perfect spiral to Chris Hogan that gained 63 yards. Twice he found Martellus Bennett for scores , from 7 and 5 yards.
By halftime, the two-time NFL MVP had New England in front 23-7 — and might have had the rest of the league shuddering at what is ahead. He went 18 for 25 (with three drops) for 271 yards, and looked somewhat frustrated because the Patriots didn’t score on every drive.
It was a more workmanlike second half for New England (4-1), but it was plenty good enough. And he came out with 6:02 remaining to more cheers from the remaining fans, few of whom were in Browns colors. He went 28 of 40 and also rushed for 14 yards.
Brady sat patiently next to Julian Edelman on the bench while Cleveland (0-5) went three-and-out to begin his first meaningful since losing the AFC championship in Denver in January. Naturally, he connected on a quick out to Edelman for 10 yards and a 19-yarder to another old friend, tight end Gronkowski.
A weaving 34-yard journey by Gronkowski set up the Blount touchdown, and the Patriots looked whole again.
Hours earlier, dozens of fans, many in No. 12 Patriots jerseys, eagerly awaited Brady’s entrance from the tunnel on Sunday morning. Most of the early arrivals were there to root for the Patriots, not the hometown Browns.
When their returning hero trotted onto the field with backup Jimmy Garoppolo, a huge cheer and chants of “BRADY, BRADY” broke out. He looked up at a group of fans behind the end zone and emphatically pumped his right arm once before beginning to warm up.
He interrupted his throwing — with fully inflated footballs, presumably — to chat with referee Bill Vinovich. Brady appeared to do most of the talking.
The NFL suspended Brady for four games for his role in the scheme to use improperly inflated footballs in the January 2015 AFC championship game.
While it’s impossible to tell if a quarterback who missed a month of action is sharp or rusty, Brady had plenty of steam on his throws to old favorite target, Julian Edelman.
He also held several short conferences with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels during warmups before leaving a few moments before the rest of the Patriots headed back to the locker room. Brady gave a soft fist pump as he headed into the tunnel to get ready for his 2016 debut.
Earlier, Brady spent his time working out in the corridors under the stadium while several teammates were on the field. Brady stretched and ran with resistance bands around his waist, a somewhat unique way to get ready on game day.
When the Patriots arrived before 10 a.m., Brady soon wandered onto the field for a short spell, looking around the empty stands that soon would be filled, including lots of fans in Patriots blue and white. The same field on which he would make like Tom Brady and guide New England to a quick score.
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