CLEVELAND — There’s nothing to hold Tom Brady and the Patriots back now.
The air has cleared around him. He’s freed. Even inflated by the past.
His fight with the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell ended long ago and his four-game suspension has elapsed as well. He’s healthy, showing no signs of any rust — or slippage at 39 — and New England’s offensive arsenal has been replenished with more targets.
Brady’s back. Beware.
“It’s super great,” Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said of the team’s reunion with Brady. “He’s our leader. He’s our guy.”
Returning from a ban for his part in the “Deflategate” scandal, Brady passed for 406 yards and threw three touchdown passes to Martellus Bennett while leading the New England Patriots to a 33-13 win on Sunday over the Cleveland Browns, who had two more quarterbacks sustain injuries.
Brady stood tall in the pocket and fired passes over the middle in traffic. The two-time MVP bought time by checking his other options and floated long passes with perfect touch to Bennett and Gronkowski, his new bookend tight ends who will give defensive coordinators even more to consider when scheming against him.
Brady even ran for 14 yards, punctuating his scramble by springing to his feet and signaling for a first down the way Usain Bolt points after winning a gold medal.
Simply put, Brady was Brady.
“It was fun to have him back out there,” Bennett said after playing his first game with Brady. “He was fired up. We were fired up and we were just trying to make plays for him.”
Brady finished 28 of 40 while recording his eighth career 400-yard game.
He did it with ease against the Browns (0-5), who didn’t put up much of a fight and had the misfortune of being the first team on New England’s schedule to face Brady following his suspension.
And while he may have released some anger on Cleveland, Brady said he’s not holding any grudges and will not look over his shoulder at what’s transpired over the past year.
“This isn’t the time for me to reflect,” he said when asked if the suspension motivated him. “I’m just happy we won and I’m happy when we win anytime we play. I have a job to do and there is no point in looking back at anything, whether we won Super Bowls or lost championship games. The last four weeks, none of it matters.
“I’m just trying to move on.”
Brady missed being around his teammates. He missed hearing 70,000 Patriots fans cheering him in Foxborough or 50,000 cussing at him in New York or Buffalo. Without meaningful football in his life, Brady was lost.
He’s got it back, and got an edge.
The rest of the league might not survive it.
“Him, with the suspension, him without the suspension, as long as he’s on the field, he’s going to be playing at the top level,” Browns cornerback Joe Haden said. “He’s been the best for a long time.”
BUSTED BROWNS: The list of injured Browns quarterbacks grew longer.
Rookie quarterback Cody Kessler hurt his ribs and chest on a hard hit while trying to throw a swing pass in the first quarter, and backup Charlie Whitehurst hyperextended his right knee in the fourth. Both are expected to undergo further testing on Monday.
It’s not known if either will be available next week for Tennessee. The Browns have already played five quarterbacks in five games, and Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown may still be weeks away.
MARTELLUS, MEET TOM: Bennett looked down and out on New England’s first drive, lying on the turf with an apparent right leg injury. Team trainers attended to him before he popped up, jogged to the sideline and was soon hauling in three TDs.
“They asked me if I needed a cart and I thought, ‘I’m going to look so weak,'” Bennett said. “You lay down for a second, you feel sorry for yourself and you think about all the people who are counting on you. I had to let them know I was coming back in the game. I got up and ran off the field.”
Then he ran all over the Browns for the first three-TD performance of his nine-season career. He caught a 7-yard TD in the first quarter, a 5-yarder in the second and a 37-yarder in the third from Brady, who had never thrown a regular-season pass to Bennett before Sunday. Bennett finished with six catches for 67 yards. Gronkowski had five for 109.
JONES EJECTED: Patriots rookie cornerback Cyrus Jones was ejected from Sunday’s game at Cleveland early in the third quarter for throwing a punch at Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins. A second-round draft pick from Alabama, Jones was angry after Hawkins blocked him while a pass to Terrelle Pryor was completed on the other side of the field.
“A football play, he got upset and he went off the deep end,” Hawkins said. “I’m not going to retaliate. I’m a smart football player. I don’t want to put my team in a bad position. So I’m not a guy that’s going to fight back and start throwing blows and whatever and I’m glad the refs caught it and that’s what happens.”