After deflating summer, Patriots set to celebrate NFL title
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Tom Brady will start at quarterback on Thursday night, when the New England Patriots raise their fourth Super Bowl banner before the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That's not more probable than not.
That's a sure thing.
After spending the offseason fending off allegations that he was involved in illegally deflating the footballs used in the AFC title game, the Patriots QB had his four-game suspension overturned last week. That means Brady, and not backup Jimmy Garoppolo, will be the starter that game and, barring injury, every game.
Here are some things to look for from the Patriots this season:
GETTING EVEN: The Patriots are expert at blocking out distractions, but they're also pretty good at using external factors to motivate them, too. After they 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.
The scandal known as ''Deflategate'' put the finger on Brady, who was already competitive. Now that U.S. District Judge Richard Berman has cleared Brady to play, expect him to do so with an extra edge.
GRONK: When he's been healthy, tight end Rob Gronkowski has been virtually unstoppable. He had 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2011, then lost time the next two seasons to major injuries.
Last year, Gronkowski had 82 catches and 12 TDs. Even with the injuries that have cost him almost an entire season, he his 54 touchdown catches are the most for a tight end over the past five seasons.
THE FUTURE: Even before the whole deflated footballs mess raised the possibility of Brady missing one-quarter of the season, the Patriots were grooming Garoppolo to replace him. Brady turned 38 during training camp, and though he has said he wants to play into his mid-40s the number of quarterbacks who have been able to do so at a high level is vanishingly small.
So the future could belong to the second-year, second-round draft pick from Eastern Illinois. Garoppolo played well filling in for Brady in garbage time during the regular season. This year in the exhibition season, he led the Patriots to victories in two of their first three games, completing 61 of 90 passes for 554 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted twice and was sacked seven times in the loss to Green Bay in the exhibition opener.
SUPER BOWL HERO: The Patriots may have found themselves a defensive backfield star in Malcolm Butler, who intercepted Russell Wilson at the goal line at the end of the Super Bowl to clinch New England's 28-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
But they've definitely lost one when they allowed Darrelle Revis to leave for the New York Jets as a free agent. The other cornerback, Brandon Browner, signed with the New Orleans Saints.
Super Bowl heroics aside, Butler seems like a cinch to move into the starting lineup. Logan Ryan or seventh-round draft pick Darryl Roberts could line up at the other corner.
SHUFFLING: The injury to James Develin in the third preseason game left the New England Patriots short at fullback. But coach Bill Belichick wouldn't commit to using a traditional fullback, saying he could use a tight end in the backfield and potentially use an offensive lineman to fill in at tight end.
The Patriots have Gronkowski as the No. 1 tight end, and Michael Hoomanawanui and Scott Chandler have also been useful. But more intriguing is the possibility that the Patriots would work some offensive linemen into the rotation.
Belichick shuffled his tight ends and offensive linemen in as eligible and ineligible receivers during the playoff victory over the Baltimore Ravens. The move - totally legal, by the way - helped New England reach the Super Bowl.
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