CLEVELAND (AP) — The NFL had its chance to damage the Patriots while Tom Brady sat out his "Deflategate" suspension. Now it's New England's turn to punish the rest of the league.
Sure, Brady's return — 406 yards passing, three touchdowns to Martellus Bennett , a 33-13 romp — came against the only winless team, the spiraling, injury-ravaged Browns. Still, you got the feeling had Brady thrown for five scores, a reasonable possibility Sunday, he would have been spelling out R-O-G-E-R for each of them.
You also get the feeling Brady might throw for multiple touchdowns every time out as he makes up for lost time.
Not that he will admit that Commissioner Roger Goodell provided extra motivation for the four-time Super Bowl champion and two-time league MVP with the four-game ban.
"This isn't a time for me to reflect," Brady said. "There's no point at looking back at anything. Whether we won Super Bowls or lost championship games or the last four weeks, none of it matters. I've just moved on, man."
He moves on to his first home game of the season against Cincinnati, another reeling team with a suspect defense after being plundered by Dallas. In Brady's mind, he'll get even sharper than he was at Cleveland. It's a fair point because after a dominant first half, there was some slippage in the final period and a half he played.
"I think there was plenty of rust out there," Brady said. "I could do better in a lot of areas. I think it was a good win today. It was one game, and like I said, 4-1 is a good point to be at for us. We have a long road ahead, so we have to stay focused."
The more Brady is focused and the healthier the Patriots (4-1) get, the more unenviable it will become taking on New England. On offense, he has as many weapons as ever in 2015 All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski and his sidekick at the position, Bennett; Julian Edelman, Brady's favorite target; and Danny Amendola, not a bad fourth option at all.
The running game isn't so formidable, but it isn't a debit if LaGarrette Blount can stay healthy, allowing James White to be a role player and third-down back.
Consider that the offensive line has been a jumble, yet New England leads an AFC East filled with mediocre or bad teams. Also consider that the defense, despite showing some leaks in the secondary, has been pretty effective.
It's certainly tiresome for the other 31 NFL locales to hear, but getting anywhere near the Lombardi Trophy will require knocking off New England. With a ticked-off Brady at the helm.
"It's super great. He's our leader. He's our guy," Gronkowski said. "He came out here on fire and we did what we had to do all week as an offense as a whole. It was awesome. He's our leader."
Then Gronk the wordsmith really put things in perspective: "Everyone was intense today. Everyone was amped up. Tom always brings the ampness to the table."
Even though he will never say it, Brady will bring that extra edge to each game this year. It might not even be needed against the likes of the Jets, Dolphins and Bengals in an AFC that looks weaker by the week. Or against San Francisco.
But there are some challenges ahead: at Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Denver, home for Seattle and Baltimore, a team that tends to play New England tough.
Brady, of course, insists that he not only isn't looking back, he's not interested in the future docket, other than the Bengals next Sunday. His coach's mantra registers when Brady speaks in public, even if it rings hollow when you see Brady in action on the field.
There's no question he was extra pumped for his return. There should be no question, despite the verbiage, that he will be equally revved up forever to overshadow the suspicions of cheating sparked by "Deflategate."
"I want to do the best job I can for the city, for all of New England and for my team base and my family," he said. "With all of these players, you put a lot into it, and there's a lot that goes in, you have to make certain choices in your life in order to play this game. You need a lot of support from your family and friends to do that.
"I love running out in front of 70,000 people that are cheering for us. I love running out to 20,000 fans that are cheering for us and 50,000 are against us. We're just going to run out and play. If I have a chance to run out and play, I'm going to do it."