PITTSBURGH -- Vintage Tom Brady.
That was what was on display Sunday night at Heinz Field, which New England Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer detected rather quickly. Not long after Brady charged on the field for warm-ups, raced to the far end zone and started gesturing to the rabid home crowd, Hoyer saw signs that this was going to be one of those Brady nights to remember.
All the factors were coming together -- "Sunday Night Football," in Pittsburgh, a rivalry-type atmosphere. Brady stepped on the gas pedal from the opening drive -- injured foot and all -- and never let up in the team's resounding 39-26 victory over the Steelers.
"You could tell it was a little special to him," Hoyer said.
This was Brady at his best, the emotion overflowing on the field and on the sideline. He had reason to be fired up, well, because he was on fire, finishing 30-of-43 for 350 yards with three touchdowns and adding a third-quarter rushing touchdown that he punctuated with a big, bad spike in the back of the end zone.
His approach lit a spark under his teammates, who relayed that his message was "bring it all night."
"There's only one way to play the game, and it's an emotional game," Brady said afterward. "I think part of being a quarterback is making sure that everyone's into it and I thought all the guys played really hard and stayed focused. It was an exciting win for all of us. We haven't been this happy in a long time."
No kidding, not to mention it was just seven days removed from their most lopsided loss of the season, a 34-14 stinker in Cleveland in which Brady told NBC he felt like one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL. That seemed to stoke Brady's desire, even as he labored through a week in which he didn't participate in complete practices because of his injured foot.
"That's always great," left guard Logan Mankins of Brady's fiery approach. "Football's a game of emotions. We want to see him excited."
When Brady is in that type of mode, it usually means the Patriots are at their best. The performance helped them keep pace with the New York Jets atop the AFC East, and NFL, at 7-2. Their 39 points were the most allowed by the Steelers at home since the AFC Championship Game after the 2004 season -- a 41-27 Patriots win.
Considering that Brady has traditionally had success against the Steelers -- he's now 6-1 against them in his career -- perhaps that shouldn't be such a big surprise. Four of those wins have come in Pittsburgh.
"That was an emotional win for us. It's always fun to come in here and play well," Brady said, adding that his tank was on empty and he was exhausted. "We know what kind of team they have, what they're all about. I thought we showed what we're all about too."
And what is that?
"We're pretty good when we play and execute the right away, do the right thing, and when everybody's doing their job. We got off to a fast start, played from ahead the whole game, and that's a big difference," he said. "Anything can happen each week, and we're 7-2 with a lot of football left."
Brady received terrific protection from his offensive line, with no sacks in 43 pass attempts, even though some of the big guys up front felt the Steelers took some liberties when they got close to Brady, such as on his 3-yard quarterback sneak for a touchdown in the third quarter.
That had enforcer Mankins, aka the Patriots' starting left guard, explaining why there was some extra pushing and shoving after Brady's score, as Mankins was locked up with safety Troy Polamalu.
"We don't care how long your hair is, we're not going to let you do what you want to our quarterback," Mankins said.
Brady wasn't the only one on the receiving end of what left tackle Matt Light felt were unnecessary blows.
"There was a lot of extra sugar being tossed out around there, late in these plays," Light said. "The guy would be down on the ground and you'd see unnecessary stuff happening, like they're torquing his head when the play is clearly over. Those are the kind of things that get you fired up."
No one was more fired up than Brady, with one of the signature aspects of his performance the use of play-action.
Brady might be known as being most comfortable in the shotgun, but this was a night in which two of his biggest plays came when he expertly faked handoffs while dropping back from center (what about the injured foot?) before delivering strikes on a 9-yard touchdown to rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski in the second quarter and a 45-yard bomb to receiver Brandon Tate in the third.
Other times, he was getting the ball out quickly to the perimeter, forcing the attacking Steelers defense to play east-to-west when it wanted to be going north-to-south.
He was in complete command against one of the NFL's best defenses, all three of his touchdowns going to Gronkowski, who delivered an impressive bounce-back performance after his forgettable game in Cleveland last Sunday.
When Brady wasn't throwing them, he was running them in, then spiking the football into the ground with authority, like one of his favorite San Francisco 49ers players -- fullback Tom Rathman -- used to do.
It was vintage Brady.
Vintage Patriots too.