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Tom Brady shines in Patriots opener after challenging offseason

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Even during the crisis that engulfed the offseason and threatened to shred his personal reputation, Tom Brady kept his counsel. He has never been much for public reflection or revelation, preferring to let people like his agent or his father -- or even the Patriots fans who chanted "Where is Roger?" -- bleat their anger on his behalf, a comprehensive product of the cloistered world coach Bill Belichick has created in New England.

So we are left only with an antiseptic line of statistics, a few sterile digits, to provide a glimpse of what must be churning inside Brady right now: 25-32, 288, 4, 0.

Brady didn't come across as particularly angry or extra motivated in Thursday's 28-21 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers -- he seemed most animated after he was sacked late in the third quarter -- and the crowd that occasionally sang his name was undoubtedly dampened by sporadic downpours. The Patriots raised a banner and had a little concert and shot off a lot of fireworks. They waved around their four Lombardi Trophies. If anybody was trying to forget the bile and bewilderment this offseason dredged up in New England, those were good ways to do it.

But Brady probably was not the one who needed any artificial balm. It is impossible to believe he is not troubled in some way by the last seven months. When he was asked, in many different ways, if this night meant a little more to him because of his recent travails, Brady nodded his head silently a few times as the questioner finished, before he deftly deflected the question by talking about how excited he always is, and how happy he was to be playing with his teammates. He then added a couple platitudes that sidestepped whatever emotions he must be feeling.

"I love being out there with my team playing," he said. "So, yes, it was something I was looking forward to."

The Stepford soundbite might be something we have to get used to from Brady, who shows little inclination to reveal whatever toll Deflategate took on him. The stain on Brady and the Patriots is probably never going to completely go away. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was obviously angered by trouble with the team's headsets, in which they heard the Patriots' radio broadcast during much of the first half. Belichick said the Patriots had to switch out their headsets a few times during the game, too, but the implication from Tomlin is that the Steelers always have trouble with their communication devices at Gillette Stadium.

"That's always the case," he said.

The league issued a statement saying the Steelers' problem was the result of an issue with the stadium's power infrastructure, which was exacerbated by the rainy weather. It would certainly seem to be the single worst night to try anything underhanded. But Tomlin's irritation underscores a central issue the Patriots will confront over and over. People suspect they are up to something nefarious -- and Brady's victory in court on a decision that was mostly about how poorly the NFL managed its investigation and discipline process apparently hasn't done much to quell the suspicions.

If Brady is bothered by his place in the conspiracy theories, he is doing his best to put a smooth veneer over the rocky reputation. His connection with Rob Gronkowski is as sharp as ever. Gronkowski caught three touchdown passes and was virtually uncoverable and once completely uncovered. On the first touchdown, a defensive mishap caused Gronkowski to be staring at empty space ahead of him, and Brady found himself quickly calling for the snap -- a troubling indicator of the confusion the Steelers' defense showed throughout the night. On the second touchdown, Brady lofted a pass to the back of the end zone that Gronkowski leaped for. On the final TD, Brady spotted a mismatch with a linebacker nobody had ever heard of before -- good luck next time, Terence Garvin -- and hit Gronkowski with a fade pass.

Those passes showcased who Brady is at his core, what he has been to the Patriots since he became the starter in 2001, what he has been with only occasional interruption as the players around him have shuffled in and out, what he is even after the most tumultuous months of his career. He has a machine-like efficiency -- at one point he completed 19 straight passes -- not always flashy but providing pinpoint passes and mind-numbing consistency to mask the Patriots' other deficiencies. The biggest change in Brady anybody could identify coming into this season was not emotional, but physical. He had been working with bands more often, to improve his mobility.

"I worked out with him a lot this offseason and he's the same old guy," receiver Julian 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.

"There's one thing about him -- Tom never has a down day. It's good to have a leader like that. When you come into work and you're not feeling the greatest, but you see '12' over there -- he's been here 30 years pretty much -- coming out here, practicing his tail off, preparing, watching film, all those things. That's why he's so good."

The holes are there, certainly. The Patriots have a problem at defensive tackle, and Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown did plenty of damage against a rebuilt secondary. The offensive line, a source of concern early last season, saw a constant rotation Thursday night. But for two Josh Scobee misses, a mindless step out of bounds by Darrius Heyward-Bey and a bone-headed trick-play call by offensive coordinator Todd Haley in the first half, the outcome of the game might have been very different.

The Patriots, though, often don't settle into their identity until some time in October. That is when last year's team finally fell into place and the march to the Super Bowl began. With as many changes as there have been on the defense, it could be a while before the Patriots will be anything but an offensive juggernaut.

If you're looking for a window into Brady this season, perhaps a peek at the box score rather than a transcript will provide the only view he wants you to have. After a messy offseason, on Thursday, it was nearly perfect.

Three things to watch around the NFL

Now that the season has officially begun, here are three more things to watch as the rest of the Week 1 slate plays out:

1) The reboots of the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles bear an unexpected parallel: Both teams want to play with speed and aggression. New Falcons coach Dan Quinn preached during training camp about the need to play fast and aggressively, and Atlanta drafted Vic Beasley at No. 8 overall to establish a pass rush that could lift this team's bottom-dwelling defense. Chip Kelly's Eagles offense has always operated on fast-forward, but that wasn't enough for Kelly, who shook up his offensive personnel and acquired a new starting quarterback, running back and, presumably, leading receiver. All to ... score even more points than the offense that was the NFL's third-best scoring unit in 2014. These were the two worst pass defenses last year, and the prediction for their Monday night contest, with the Falcons' defense still at the beginning of its makeover, is that a lot of points will be scored.

2) To wit, from Washington: Still more than a week from the season opener, the franchise quarterback was finished and the general manager was already in damage-control mode. And to welcome Kirk Cousins into the most important and fragile job on this team are Ndamukong Suh and Cam Wake, the Miami Dolphins' fearsome pass-rushing tandem. The knock on Cousins is that he has trouble rebounding from adversity. With Suh in his face and Robert Griffin III loyalists glancing over his shoulder, adversity is probably a given. Last year, Cousins threw an interception on 4.4 percent of his passes, the highest percentage among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts. This game will give us a good snapshot of two of the most fascinating teams from the offseason. Just how improved are the Dolphins, who also overhauled Ryan Tannehill's receiving corps? And has Miami closed the gap with the Patriots? The early part of the Dolphins' schedule helps. The combined winning percentage of the quarterbacks they're scheduled to face in their first six games is .379. As for Washington, what can Cousins and Jay Gruden make from another mess of a quarterback competition?

3) Somehow it feels like the Denver Broncos have become afterthoughts in the AFC. But on Wednesday, Peyton Manning said he felt good, and that opens the door for the most interesting experiment the NFL will host in 2015: Manning in a new offense at age 39, and in what could be his final season. We'll find out about the wisdom of Gary Kubiak's plans early on, because the Broncos have an offensive line that has not played a regular-season snap together and must now protect Manning, perhaps operating from an unfamiliar spot under center, against the league's top sack duo: the Ravens' Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. Ironically, Manning might finally have a defense that is the offense's equal, with a front that features Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and rookie Shane Ray. If we were to see a rematch of this game deep in the AFC playoffs, nobody would be surprised.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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