By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - Tom Brady moved past a stormy off season throwing four touchdowns as the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots scored a season-opening 28-21 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday in front of a frenzied home crowd.
Brady, whose status for the first four games of the season was in doubt until last week because of an NFL-imposed "Deflategate" ban, led his team onto the field to rousing cheers before putting on his silver helmet and delivering a stellar performance.
"It was a pretty special night so I was excited. Our whole team was excited," the 38-year-old quarterback told reporters.
"It is always fun getting out there and getting the opportunity to go play and we took advantage of it, it was a good win, I thought our guys played hard."
On New England's opening possession, Brady completed his first three passes to get New England into Pittsburgh territory. He then threw pair of incomplete passes and was sacked, forcing the Patriots to punt.
Brady eventually opened the scoring in the second quarter when he capped a 13-play, 90-yard drive with a 16-yard touchdown pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski. He finished the game having completed 25 of 32 passes for 288 yards.
"He was an unbelievable performer tonight," said Gronkowski, who caught three touchdown passes in the win, "He's our leader. He's just a great player and it's fun playing with him."
Even a constant rain could not dampen the party atmosphere as fans showed support for one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time by sporting replica Brady jerseys, T-shirts with slogans like "Vindicated" and holding up signs reading "In Tom We Trust."
It was the first time Patriots supporters were able to shower Brady with adulation since a federal judge vacated his four-game ban a week ago as part of the "Deflategate" saga that engulfed the nation's most popular sport over the last nine months.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who normally attends the first game of a season, was absent and perhaps it was a wise move as fans would no doubt have given him a hostile reception as he was the one who upheld Brady's ban in July.
That didn't stop the fans in attendance from jeering him as they joined in unison with a "Where is Roger?" chant during the fourth quarter while the Patriots held a comfortable 28-14 lead.
When Brady came out for pre-game warmups, he ran the length of the field and then fist-pumped voraciously. He then was all smiles as he made time for a brief on-field embrace and dialogue with Steelers counterpart Ben Roethlisberger.
Thousands of fans arrived hours before kickoff for pre-game festivities outside the stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, where the usual celebratory mood that accompanies season-opening games was in overdrive given the excitement over Brady.
Brady, a four-times Super Bowl champion who is a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer player when he becomes eligible for induction, was the focus of a probe into his alleged role in a scheme to deflate footballs used in a playoff win last season that sent New England to the Super Bowl.
A league investigative report initially determined Brady was most likely aware that two team equipment staff members deflated balls in an apparent bid to give him a better grip. His suspension was ultimately tossed out as a judge said Goodell's ruling was plagued by "several significant legal deficiencies."
But while Brady had a largely unimpressive pre-season, he seemed to flick a switch when the season kicked off shortly after the Patriots unveiled their fourth Super Bowl banner, this one commemorating last season's triumph.
"You don't really forget how to play football in the seven months," said Brady. "It's a little bit different than the pre-season."
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto. Additional reporting by Larry Fine and Ben Everill; Editing by Steve Keating)