FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In case millions of fans forgot over the past seven months, Tom Brady just reminded everyone why we ever cared about him in the first place. It was not because of his leading man looks or his world-famous spouse or whether or not he once treated the NFL rulebook as a loose circle of suggestions rather than the unbendable law of his land.
Brady is a master craftsman in the art of throwing a football, and that truth was never impacted by the Ideal Gas Law or an equipment guy who called himself The Deflator. This was not your father's Pittsburgh Steelers defense Thursday night, nor was it Dick LeBeau's. But what Brady did to them is precisely what he would've done to them in Troy Polamalu's prime.
He threw four touchdown passes and completed 25 of 32 passes -- including a franchise-record 19 in a row -- for 288 yards in a victory on a rainy opening night. In other words, the absent commissioner, Roger Goodell, missed one hell of a show.
"Where is Roger?" the Patriots fans chanted.
Probably somewhere dry, in front of a big-screen TV, watching Brady do what he's done since he replaced Drew Bledsoe in September 2001.
"It was a pretty special night," Brady said. "I was excited. The whole team was excited. We haven't had one of these games in a long time. ... I love being out there with my teammates playing. So yes, I think it was something I really looked forward to."
You could argue Brady's performance was fueled by inner rage and shaped by his desire to shove a properly inflated game ball down the non-believers' throats. But that source of motivation can be a fickle thing. Before the New England Patriots played the unwashed New York Jets in the playoffs here after the 2010 season, Antonio Cromartie was quoted calling Brady a vulgar name, and Rex Ryan mocked the quarterback's decision to attend a Broadway play, "Lombardi," rather than watch the Jets beat the Indianapolis Colts on TV.
Everyone figured the Jets had unnecessarily angered and inspired Brady, who proceeded to go out in his own building and get outplayed by Mark Sanchez, of all people.
Of course, the Deflategate case is hardly comparable to a couple of Jets popping off on muscle memory. Brady's reputation as football's golden boy was put on a public trial, and he had to be exhausted and frayed by the time Judge Richard Berman liberated him in his withering assault on Goodell's brand of justice.
But Brady did not look exhausted and frayed on a Thursday night he spent slinging in the rain. He didn't look particularly angry, either.
He looked calm, cool and taller than ever in the pocket. More than anything, Brady looked in complete command of what he was trying to accomplish.
Not that he didn't show enough emotion to match the occasion. As he appeared for warm-ups, Brady did his routine jog toward an end zone and pumped his fist toward the fans. Soon enough, the sounds of Nas' "Hate Me Now" could be heard on the Gillette Stadium speakers, if only for a little comic relief.
But this whole night was serious business for the Patriots. In their pregame ceremony, Troy Brown, Willie McGinest and Ty Law each marched a Lombardi Trophy to the on-field stage, followed by Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who carried out No. 4 with a hint of defiance in his step.
And then Brady took it from there. He played too fast for Pittsburgh, getting to the line and firing off quick hitters before the Steelers could find their footing. On one play, Brady found Rob Gronkowski split wide and entirely uncovered. The quarterback clapped his hands furiously so his rookie center, David Andrews, would understand it was time to ignore the crowd noise and snap the ball. "I was just trying to get the ball in my hands so I could make the throw," Brady said. "Just make sure we were set because I saw they were misaligned."
Brady found Gronkowski for a 16-yard touchdown to open the scoring, and then found the freakish tight end once again on a 6-yard jump ball over the top of Will Allen and Mike Mitchell, the second of three Gronk scores. Neither the quarterback nor his target had connected in the preseason, not with Gronkowski sitting out all four games and Brady busy suiting up for Judge Berman's courtroom. But the turbulent offseason did nothing to tame the most lethal pass-catch tandem in the league. "You don't really forget how to play football, I think, in those seven months," Brady said in the understatement of the night.
By halftime, Brady had posted numbers out of a seven-on-seven drill in the summer. Seventeen attempts, 15 completions, 172 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, a 148.9 passer rating. Brady had barely been hit by the Pittsburgh defense. He trotted off the field appearing fresh enough to serve Judge Berman a few rounds of free coffee.
Brady did not have his first-string center, Bryan Stork, nor did he have an available running back any casual fan outside of New England had ever heard of. Brady didn't have Darrelle Revis or Vince Wilfork on defense, either. None of it mattered. Of course it didn't. At the time the winning quarterback threw a wayward pass to snap his streak of 19 consecutive completions, Brady had connected on 22 of 24 attempts for 258 yards and three touchdowns.
As much as the fans chanted at Goodell, they chanted for Brady, who now has more victories for a single NFL team (161) than any quarterback dead or alive. Brady reminded every witness why he has won a dozen division titles in the 13 healthy seasons he has played as the Patriots' starter. He reminded every witness why he's 8-2 lifetime against Pittsburgh with 24 touchdown passes against three interceptions.
When it was over, Bill Belichick arrived at his news conference wearing cargo shorts and sandals, appearing as if he were preparing for a quick getaway to the Cape. He said something about leaving some plays on the field, but he looked a lot more relaxed than Mike Tomlin did on the other side.
Long before this game was decided for good, Steelers coaches suddenly started hearing the Patriots' radio broadcast in their headsets, another moment good for a laugh. Frankly, it wouldn't have mattered if the Steelers coaches were hearing Belichick's direct communications to his aides.
Tom Brady was going to pick them apart one way or another. It's what he does for a living, you know, just in case a whole lot of people had spent the past seven months forgetting.