Season Opener Pats vs. Steelers

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Tom Brady will be under center. The New England Patriots will raise their fourth Super Bowl banner.

On Thursday night, all will finally seem normal in Foxborough.

After the seemingly endless offseason drama surrounding “Deflategate,” the Patriots begin defense of their championship led by their superstar quarterback – a circumstance that was in doubt until just a week ago – when they host the Pittsburgh Steelers to open the NFL season.

Brady’s four-game suspension was erased last Thursday by a federal judge, who ruled that Commissioner Roger Goodell had dispensed ”his own brand of industrial justice” in finding that Brady played a role in the deflating of footballs below the allowable limit for last season’s AFC championship game. Brady has insisted he played no role in any conspiracy to do so, and the judge ruled that Goodell went ”far beyond” the investigative conclusions of attorney Ted Wells.

The quarterback’s lawsuit against the league appeared to put an end to the matter for the foreseeable future, though the NFL has promised to appeal.

”Everything that’s happened over the past seven months, obviously I have a lot of personal feelings, but I really don’t care to share many of those,” Brady said Sunday.

”I really care to think about what I need to do going forward. We’ve got a lot of guys in this locker room who worked really hard to get to this point, and so have I, and I’m excited to be able to go out there and do it.”

That could be bad news for opponents that hope the saga has distracted Brady from his preparation to play. In fact, “Deflategate” might only leave him more motivated. After the Patriots were penalized for illegally videotaping opponents in 2007, they ran off a perfect record in the regular season before losing in the Super Bowl to blow their chance at the NFL’s first 19-0 season.

New England (15-4), of course, finished the job last season, with Brady rallying the Patriots from 10 points down in the fourth quarter against Seattle’s fearsome defense to win 28-24 and capture their first title since the 2004 season.

With Brady set to throw to healthy star tight end Rob Gronkowski (82 catches, 1,124 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Julian Edelman (92 receptions, 972 yards), he’ll have some familiar weapons at his disposal as his team chases another Lombardi Trophy.

The Patriots, though, won’t have Brandon LaFell (74 catches, 953 yards, seven TDs) until at least Week 8 after he was placed on the reserve-physically unable to perform list. Also, the addition of veteran receiver Reggie Wayne didn’t work, as he was among the team’s final cuts.

A bigger loss was the departure of star cornerback Darrelle Revis for the New York Jets. Their other starting cornerback, Brandon Browner, signed with New Orleans.

However, New England’s defensive backfield still includes Malcolm Butler, who intercepted Russell Wilson at the goal line to clinch the Super Bowl victory, and safety Devin McCourty, who was coveted throughout the league but re-signed for five years with the Patriots.

Longtime starting defensive tackle Vince Wilfork also left, signing with Houston after 11 years in New England.

Personnel change, though, has hardly fazed coach Bill Belichick over the years.

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