CLEVELAND — Tom Brady, looking razor-sharp at times and relatively rust-free after serving his four-game “Deflategate” suspension, passed for 406 yards and three touchdowns to Martellus Bennett in his hyped return and the New England Patriots thumped the Cleveland Browns 33-13 on Sunday.
Brady was back — much to the relief of teammates and New England fans everywhere — following a ban for his role in the scandal in which an NFL investigation found the Patriots under-inflated footballs in the 2015 AFC championship game.
Brady fought Commissioner Roger Goodell’s ruling for more than a year before he begrudgingly accepted his punishment.
He took out some of that built-up frustration on the Browns (0-5), throwing for 271 yards in the first half, as the Patriots (4-1) rebounded after being shut out last week at home by Buffalo.
Brady threw two short TD passes in the first half to Bennett before hooking up with his new teammate again on a 37-yarder to give the Patriots a 30-7 lead in the third quarter.
Brady seemed to enjoy every second of his season debut, even posing like track star Usain Bolt after a 4-yard run. Coach Bill Belichick replaced Brady with 6:02 left, greeting him on the sideline with a handshake and pat on the back.
The 39-year-old was far from perfect, overthrowing Julian Edelman for a possible long TD, but Brady spread the ball around and showed a nice touch on a few passes, including a floater to Rob Gronkowski for 37 yards in the fourth.
LeGarrette Blount added a 1-yard score for the Patriots.
Unfortunately for the Browns, a rebuilding season is spiraling out of control.
Cleveland has dropped seven straight and 14 of 15 going back to last season, and Browns coach Hue Jackson is running out of quarterbacks after rookie Cody Kessler was knocked out in the first half with rib and chest injuries.
Quarterback-turned-wide receiver Terrelle Pryor took two snaps before veteran Charlie Whitehurst replaced him, becoming the fifth quarterback to play for Cleveland in five games.
Whitehurst limped off the field with 3:57 left.
Thousands of New England fans, many wearing No. 12 jerseys, made the trip to Ohio to greet Brady. They stood and cheered loudly as he jogged into the huddle before his first snap since last season’s AFC title game.
At that moment, all was right again from Cambridge to Maine’s coastline.
Brady completed his first pass to his favorite target, Edelman, and he connected twice on New England’s opening drive with Gronkowski, who sidestepped a couple of tacklers and looked like the indomitable “Gronk” as he bulled his way to the Cleveland 1 before Blount scored.
Brady went 4 of 5 — the incompletion was dropped — on the Patriots’ opening drive and he was efficient on the second, which ended with his 7-yard TD pass to Bennett.
The four-time Super Bowl champion arrived at FirstEnergy Stadium around 9:30 a.m. and after a quick stop in the locker room, walked onto the field wearing a red Patriots sweatshirt. He looked around at the empty seats and sat for a moment on New England’s bench to reflect.
Brady stretched and went down a corridor with resistance bands around his waist about an hour before kickoff. With fans sitting near the tunnel chanting, “Bra-dy, Bra-dy,” the star stared ahead as he slowly walked from the locker room with Jimmy Garoppolo, who started two games in his absence.
Garoppolo’s day will come.
Brady, though, is back.
Kessler took a hard shot from Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower while trying to throw a swing pass to Duke Johnson at the Cleveland 10 late in the second quarter.
The pass was behind Johnson and skipped out of the end zone, giving the Patriots a safety and the Browns another quarterback headache. Kessler had to be helped up, and after being checked on the sideline, the third-round pick was taken to the locker room for X-rays and did not return.
Patriots rookie cornerback Cyrus Jones was ejected in the third quarter for unsportsmanlike conduct.
A second-round pick from Alabama, Jones got tangled with Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins on the opposite side of the field. The pair had jawed at each other on several earlier plays.
The Patriots held the NFL’s top rushing team to 27 yards on 22 carries. Cleveland came in leading the NFL with 149.3 yards rushing.
Isaiah Crowell picked up just 22 on 13 attempts, a far cry from 6.4-yard average in Cleveland’s first four games.