CLEVELAND — The inner fire was burning for sure but Tom Brady was doing a slow burn as he methodically marched his offense up and down field in the Patriots’ 33-13 win over the Browns Sunday afternoon.
In his first game back from serving a four-game Deflategate suspension, the quarterback was calm, cool, and collected as New England built an early lead thanks to his three touchdown passes to Martellus Bennett.
Brady kept his emotions in check as he showed off his arm (406 yards passing), slicing his way through the Browns defense. But it was when he showed off his legs that he finally showed just how fired-up he was.
Faced with a third and 4 at the New England 31 late in the third quarter, Brady couldn’t find an open target. So he took off for the sticks, diving for the first down as Emmanuel Ogbah dived for him along the right sideline.
Brady came up unscathed and emphatically signaled for the first down as the large contingent of New Englanders cheered for him.
He was pointing for the first down but Browns fans might have taken it as if he was pointing them toward the exits, and they obliged, leaving in droves.
“I don’t run so much so I was a little excited,’’ said Brady.
Because of Brady’s intensity there was a fear he might come out too amped up for his first game action since the AFC Championship game in January. Those fears were allayed early.
Brady spearheaded an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive the first time he had the ball, completing his first two passes to old friends Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski.
“This guy’s been doing this a long time. He knows how to handle himself regardless of the situation — obviously this was a unique one,’’ said Matthew Slater. “I think he did a great job leading our team today — just the way he always does.’’
After the Browns answered with a touchdown, Brady went back to work, leading back-to-back touchdown drives (sandwiched between a safety) and New England built a 23-7 lead that felt more like 230-7.
Meanwhile on defense, another veteran made his season debut impactful as well. Rob Ninkovich, who served a four-game ban after testing positive for a banned substance, got the start and, like Brady, started fast.
On the first snap of the game, the defensive end teamed with Malcom Brown to wallop Isaiah Crowell after a 3-yard gain. Ninkovich emerged from the pile pumping his fists.
“I felt good. I hadn’t tackled someone since the AFC Champsionship game,’’ said Ninkovich. “Really worked hard this week to get the feeling of football back. Just really happy to be back with my teammates.’’
Though Ninkovich didn’t fill up the stat sheet (two tackles), he consistently helped set the edge as the Patriots held the league’s top rushing attack to a measly 27 yards on 22 carries.
Ninkovich, who was nursing a triceps injury when the suspension was handed down, said his “arm feels good’’ and said he was eager to get back. Seems he picked up a side job during his absence that wasn’t as glamorous as the NFL.
“I missed it a lot,’’ he said. “I was ready to stop changing diapers and get back to football. My wife put me to work there.’’
Ninkovich said the Patriots sideline was buzzing after Brady made his first-down dash to Browns sideline.
“That looked pretty good. He looked pretty jacked up,’’ said Ninkovich. “Happy to see him jump up on their sideline and signal that first down. It was pretty sweet.’’
Brady finished his day by completing 28 of 40 passes for 406 yards and three touchdowns.
“He knows the system,’’ said Julian Edelman. “It’s Tom Brady so don’t expect anything less.’’
Watch: Ben Volin and Jim McBride break down the Patriots’ win over the Browns
Other observations as the Patriots improved to 4-1 while the Browns remain winless at 0-5.
■ The game was played on the banks of Lake Erie, but it sure felt like Foxborough. Patriots fans were everywhere and Brady left the game to a standing ovation when he was pulled for Jimmy Garoppolo in the fourth quarter.
“You could feel the crowd,’’ said Slater. “It was crazy that we were playing here but the crowd was chanting Tom’s name. I know it gave us a boost.’’
Brady was notably impressed as well. “It was awesome,’’ he said. “I think we have the best fans in the world.’’
■ Bennett was absolutely immense again.
Despite hurting his ankle in the first quarter and leaving the game briefly, the tight end collected six Brady passes passes for 67 yards and the three scores.
“They asked me if I wanted a cart [when I got hurt]. I thought, ‘man, I’m going to look weak,’ ’’ said Bennett, who opted to jog off.
■ We got the full Gronk.
The All-Pro ramped up his playing time for the third straight week and was an intregal part of the passing game for the first time all season, collecting five passes for 109 yards.
“It’s pretty dynamic with both of us out there today,’’ said Bennett.
■ Numbers can be deceiving.
Dont’a Hightower was credited with only an assisted tackle but made the biggest play of the game on defense. He blitzed and blasted Browns quarterback Cody Kessler, who fumbled the ball out of the end zone in the first quarter. Kessler hurt his ribs and chest on the play. He did not return and the Browns were never the same.
“I think High did a great job of timing it up with the snap and was able to get in there and hit the quarterback and get the safety, so that was another big momentum play there,’’ said Ninkovich.
■ Patrick Chung was a primary force in the secondary.
The veteran safety collected six tackles and an interception — and nearly had a second one. He continues to play a physical style against the run while maintaining solid cover skills.
■ The Browns could never get a foothold.
Despite entering with the league’s top ground game, Crowell and Duke Johnson (both were averaging more than 6 yards a carry) averaged 1.7 and 0.3 yards respectively.
“They loaded up to stop it,’’ said Browns coach Hue Jackson. “They slowed us down like no team has this season.’’
■ Terrelle Pryor was held in check.
He played receiver (five catches, 48 yards) and wildcat QB (1 of 3 for 5 yards and two rushes for 3) but had little impact.
“It seems like they’re the best team in the NFL right there,’’ he said. “Especially with Tom Brady there.’’