By Jimmy Golen
September 10, 2015
FILE - In this Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015 file photo, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) passes against the Seattle Seahawks during the first half of NFL Super Bowl XLIX football game in Glendale, Ariz. Without the games to distract from the issues, football fans were left to ponder the NFL's policies, its commissioner and its overall credibility during an uncomfortable offseason for the league. Tom Brady and the Patriots got a favorable ruling from a New York judge, meaning the quarterback will be in the starting lineup when New England hosts Pittsburgh in the league's opener Thursday night, Sept. 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -- The New England Patriots' fourth Super Bowl banner will be unveiled at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night.
The fans will have their first chance to shower quarterback Tom Brady with adulation since a federal judge vacated the four-game suspension he was handed in the NFL's botched ''Deflategate'' investigation.
Oh, yeah, they'll play an actual football game, too.
Seven months after claiming the franchise's fourth NFL title, the Patriots return to the field for the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the league's annual kickoff game. Even for a team that's made its reputation on avoiding distractions, the competition will provide a welcome relief from a summer of talk about deflated footballs and the ideal gas law.
''It's time for me to do my job,'' Brady said this week when he spoke to reporters for the first time since the news conference for his third Super Bowl MVP award.
''Anything that's happened over the last seven months really wasn't my job. This is what my job is, is to go out there and try to be a great leader for our team, to try to go out and execute the plays that are called and execute them at a high level. That's where my focus is.''
The victory for Brady and the players' union left Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with mixed emotions.
''I still have a ton of respect for Tom. I think he is the best in the business. If you want to be the best you have to beat the best,'' he said. ''Yeah, of course one part of you doesn't want him out there because he is the best in the world, but a bigger part of you as a competitor wants him out there because he is the best.''
Here are some other things to look for in Thursday night's game:
BANNER NIGHT: The Super Bowl banner has already been raised, but it remains covered. The three previous championship banners have been moved, and the Patriots removed the one dedicated to their 16-0 regular season in 2007.
Team president Jonathan Kraft said during the broadcast of the Patriots' exhibition finale that the team would have postponed the ceremony if Brady was suspended for the game. Kraft said the team planned for an alternate banner that would note some of Brady's accomplishments, such as four NFL titles and three Super Bowl MVPs.
''Rest assured, Super Bowl XLIX's banner was not being raised if Tom Brady was not on the field,'' Kraft said. ''He needed to be here the first game that that banner existed in the stadium.''
COMMISSIONER OMISSION: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the focus of Patriots fans' anger during the ''Deflategate'' investigation, will skip the opener.
''He believes that the focus should be on the game on the field and the festivities celebrating the Patriots' Super Bowl championship,'' league spokesman Brian McCarthy said. ''Goodell has attended the other kickoff games, but does not have a function there that requires him to attend.''
IN A RUSH: The Steelers promoted longtime linebackers coach Keith Butler to defensive coordinator in January and tasked him with restoring some bite to a pass rush that has been largely benign the last four years. The results during the preseason were uneven at best, though Butler remains confident - even though the Steelers are just 2-7 against Brady during his career and have never beaten him on the road, losing the three games in Foxboro by an average of 20.3 points, including a 55-31 mauling in 2013.
''You don't have to cover people if you get to the quarterback,'' Butler said. ''Can we get to Brady before he throws the ball? We'll see. We can't let him throw where he wants to.''
SUPER SUBS?: Pittsburgh will open the season without three vital pieces of an offense that ranked second in the league a year ago. All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell is suspended for the first two games, and wide receiver Martavis Bryant is out four weeks for running afoul of league policy. CenterMaurkice Pouncey is sidelined until November at the earliest with a left ankle injury. In their stead are the likes of DeAngelo Williams, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Cody Wallace, fill-ins that will need to play more like starters if the Steelers are going to survive the league's toughest schedule.
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