CLEVELAND –In his illustrious career, Tom Brady has seen almost everything.
Big wins. Big losses. Super Bowls. Pro Bowls. An (almost) undefeated season. A comeback from a season on injured reserve.
But one of the most competitive players you'll ever meet had never experienced being suspended from playing the game he loves.
Brady has always been the kind of player who wears his heart on his sleeve. Whether he's having a great game or a horrendous one, you know it by just reading his body language. TB12 certainly had considerable support from the overwhelming number of Patriots fans who traveled to Ohio to watch him in his 2016 regular season debut.
"You hear them chanting 'Brady!'" defensive end Rob Ninkovich noted, "and all the support that came out for this game was pretty awesome. You look in the crowd and there's a lot of blue and red."
So, the most compelling aspect of his return to action in Week 5 at Cleveland would be how the quarterback managed his emotions on the field more than any lingering rust he might have from a month on the shelf.
That question was answered right from the get-go. Brady looked calm and in control as ever in directing the Patriots to touchdowns on their opening possessions. Making calls and adjustments at the line of scrimmage and unloading the football in the face of on-coming rushers, Brady showed no lingering signs of a layoff.
He was generous, too, spreading his passes to seven different receivers in the first half. A huge chunk of his yards came on two passes – one for 43 yards, the other for 63 – to veteran receiver Chris Hogan.
"It felt great. We stressed all week that this was going to be a big game for us in all three phases," Hogan remarked. "We practiced well, prepared well, and started fast. It was good to have [Brady] back out there, for sure."
Mostly, it was his tight ends who were key to Brady's passing success. Martellus Bennett and Rob Gronkowski gave the NFL a glimpse of what havoc they can wreak together on opposing defenses.
The duo caught a combined for 11 catches and 176 yards for Brady, who passed for more than 400 yards in a game for the eighth time as a pro. Bennett snagged all three of Brady's touchdown throws Sunday afternoon.
"[Brady] was fired up, we were fired up to have him back out there, and we were just trying to make plays for him," stated Bennett.
The New England Patriots take on the Cleveland Browns in a regular season game at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday, October 9, 2016.
It wasn't entirely smooth, though.
If anything, the Patriots offense seemed to lose its collective breath toward the end of the first half, when they sputtered on a goal-to-go from the Browns 1-yard line, couldn't convert a couple of third downs thereafter, and couldn't find a consistent rhythm in the second half.
All that said, the Patriots led 23-7 at intermission, and it wasn't even that close. Everyone in attendance knew it… even the Browns, it seemed. The final score could and should have been even more lopsided than it was at 33-13.
"I mean, it's Tom Brady. So, you don't expect anything less," remarked wide receiver Julian Edelman.
Meanwhile, on defense, defensive end Rob Ninkovich was going through a similar experience as Brady, in his first action since coming off a four-game NFL suspension. He was clearly excited to be back in the starting lineup and contribute with a tackle on the game's first play from scrimmage. He nearly had a diving interception in the late third quarter, but the ball hit the ground as he scooped it out of the air.
"All the people who supported me through this [suspension] were awesome," Ninko continued. "I missed [playing] a lot. I was ready to stop changing diapers and get back to football. I hadn't tackled someone since the AFC Championship Game [in January]. It felt good. Worked hard this week and tried to get as many reps and do whatever I could to get the feel for football back.
"Just really happy to be back, come into work, practice… Happy to come out here and get a win."
Invigorated perhaps by Ninko's return, the Patriots defense began making plays again – something they couldn't seem to do a week earlier versus Buffalo. Pressure and sacks on the Browns quarterbacks – they knocked rookie Cody Kessler out in the first half – an interception, key stops to force punts, and the first safety scored by New England since last October helped limit Cleveland to just 13 points. Limiting Cleveland, the league's top rushing offense, was imperative and the Patriots did that, holding Isaiah Crowell to just 22 yards on the ground.
"We came in knowing we had to do a good job in the running game," Ninkovich added. "We were able to do that today."
Overall, the Patriots cut down significantly on the penalties and general sloppiness that underscored their performance a week earlier against Buffalo. They didn't do everything right, but did more than enough to show that last week's shutout at home was simply a once-in-a-generation event.
And Brady did enough to earn something even more rare – a late-game substitution. He was pulled with six minutes to play and his team up 33-13. Brady jogged to the sideline and gave his head coach, Bill Belichick, and emphatic hand shake and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels a warm hug.
It was as if the past month never even happened.
Room to Grow
Of the few disappointments for New England, rookie cornerback Cyrus Jones continues to struggle in all aspects of his game. Given the chance to play a bigger role on defense this week, Jones cut his afternoon short when he was ejected in the third quarter. It appeared that he retaliated against a Browns player after the play had been whistled dead.
Before that, he was relieved of his special teams duties for this game, both as a kick returner and punt returner, where he has been shaky since training camp.
Elsewhere, normally surefire kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed yet another field goal with a perfect snap and hold(albeit a long one from 50). It's fair to say now that the Pro Bowl booter is experiencing a bit of a slump. He's now missed three field goals in four weeks, after going a perfect 3-for-3 in the season opener.