By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - Bill Belichick is an NFL mastermind at overcoming obstacles and getting the best out of his New England Patriots, but the head coach's job was made much easier Thursday when Tom Brady's suspension by the league was overturned.
Had Belichick been forced to use second-year backup Jimmy Garoppolo behind center for the first quarter of the 16-game regular season, the defending Super Bowl champions could easily have fallen out of the playoff picture.
But thankfully for Belichick, a federal judge's decision to scrap Brady's four-game ban over his alleged role in a scheme to deflate footballs clears the way for the reigning Super Bowl MVP to lead New England into their Sept. 10 season opener.
Belichick proved to be well prepared for such a development as he made sure Brady, who threw 33 touchdowns in 16 games last season for New England, was given all the usual snaps throughout training camp and the preseason.
But while the judge's decision offers plenty of clarity for Brady's Patriots, it does little to guarantee they will cruise to a seventh consecutive AFC East division title as many teams got more competitive during the offseason.
Brady will need to make early adjustments of his own since New England, whose offense looked unimpressive throughout the preseason, are dealing with injuries to a pair of his favorite targets in wide receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell.
But controversy and roster holes are nothing new to the Patriots, and Belichick has often used both in the past as motivational tools that ultimately led to Super Bowl titles.
With Brady under center, the Patriots can shift their entire focus back to the field knowing they have a 38-year-old veteran who offers a steady pair of hands, confidence and leadership qualities at the helm of their offence.
His presence on the field also forces opponents to prepare differently than they would had Garoppolo been given the start since Brady is much better at reading defenses, has greater football intelligence and can get the most out of his teammates.
Already, the Patriots have moved to 6-1/2-point favorites from 3-point favorites in their Week One clash against the Pittsburgh Steelers following the judge's ruling.
"Let's go! This season to be one heck of another ride!!" tweeted Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who led the team with 12 receiving touchdowns last season.
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)