At last, the long, arduous wait for payback is over.
Patriots Nation has seethed for months in anticipation of the moment when it could unleash five magical words: We are on to Indianapolis.
The players and coaches of the 4-0 New England Patriots insist it will be just another football game on Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
We know better.
When the Patriots square off against the Indianapolis Colts, they will be staring down the instigators of Deflategate, a controversy that sullied New England's franchise quarterback and once again impeached the integrity of owner Robert Kraft's football team.
The NFL was largely indifferent to the pounds-per-square-inch levels and pregame protocol of its game balls until the Colts backed the league into a corner and demanded action in the middle of the AFC Championship Game in January. Colts general manager Ryan Grigson confronted NFL vice president of football operations Troy Vincent in the second quarter and said his team believed that the game balls were underinflated.
The balls were confiscated, replaced, then measured.
You know the rest. The story was leaked to a local Indianapolis journalist, and all hell broke loose. Tom Brady's "transgressions" were dissected on every network from ESPN to Fox News.
Later it was revealed that Grigson, acting on a tip from the Baltimore Ravens, contacted the league office before the AFC Championship Game to be on the lookout for game balls that might be deflated.
A year ago at this time, few New Englanders could identify Grigson, but overnight he became Public Enemy No. 1, on par with Ulf Samuelsson and Bucky "Bleeping" Dent.
Grigson is no newcomer. He's a towering 6-foot-6 former Purdue lineman who was named NFL Executive of the Year in 2012. In his finest hour, Grigson made the call to pick Andrew Luck over Robert Griffin III. In one of his worst, he traded a first-round pick for Trent Richardson. He also drafted T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief to provide his young quarterback with some promising targets.
Patriots fans don't want to hear it. They've tagged Grigson as a sore sport who resorts to whiny tactics when his team falls short. Ditto for the Ravens, who complained about New England's formations in the divisional-round playoff game the week before.
The Patriots dispatched the Ravens 35-31, then went on to crush the Colts 45-7 in the AFC Championship Game. Tom Brady's second-half statistics without his preferred footballs were sublime: four touchdowns on the first four possessions of the second half.
New England went on to win the Super Bowl in spectacular fashion, and the NFL went on to deftly transform Deflategate into a national news story that conveniently drew attention away from two legitimate issues tarnishing the shield: its unwillingness to acknowledge the serious long-term effects of concussions and a rash of embarrassing domestic violence accusations.
If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell really wanted to nab New England for breaking the rules, he should have investigated the team's decision to allow Julian Edelman to continue playing in the Super Bowl against Seattle when he appeared to have been concussed.
Instead, the commish spent millions on an "independent" investigation that was later struck down by an actual justice system, not the in-house bag job the league tried to thrust upon the Patriots. Brady spent the summer under siege (and under suspension) while his teammates and his owner -- who willingly gave up a first-round and fourth-round draft pick and accepted a $1 million fine -- stewed.
Meanwhile, the bull's-eye was drawn on the back of the meddling Colts, and believe me, nobody in that Patriots locker room has taken their eyes off their target.
Deflategate is another chapter in a long-running rivalry between the Colts and Patriots that reached its crescendo when Peyton Manning was Indy's quarterback. Manning and Brady may have enjoyed a "gentleman's rivalry" borne out of the respect they shared for one another, but that didn't stop their respective counterparts from trading barbs and insults.
Since 2001, the two franchises have combined for eight AFC championships and five Super Bowl victories, but four of those rings belong to Brady and the Patriots, and it sticks in the craw of all who wear the horseshoe on their helmets.
Former Colts general manager Bill Polian barely concealed his dislike for the Patriots during his tenure. In October 2013, when he was asked to address why Indianapolis and Manning were able to win only one Super Bowl, Polian's response included this final kicker: "Here's the most important thing of all, and it goes unfortunately unspoken because of the focus on the Super Bowl and the failure to win more than one Super Bowl. We did it -- and Peyton did it -- the right way, honestly, fairly and squarely.''
Hmm. Is there any doubt whom he's referencing there?
It was Polian who signed former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri to a free-agent contract in 2006. Vinatieri, a New England cult hero for his game-winning kicks in Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII, was upset when the Patriots slapped the franchise tag on him in 2005, then offered him an underwhelming deal the next year.
He bolted for the Colts without giving the Patriots a chance to match the offer. Vinatieri won a championship with Indianapolis in his first season there, and the signing looked like a real coup, yet New England hasn't exactly been pining for him.
The Patriots drafted Stephen Gostkowski to replace Vinatieri, and he's gone on to break the NFL record with 467 consecutive points after touchdowns (he's missed one in his career, as a rookie in 2006), has kicked field goals at an 87.2 percent success rate, and recently tied the Patriots record for longest field goal held by -- who else? -- Vinatieri.
Indianapolis hasn't won a game against the Patriots since Nov. 15, 2009, when the Colts roared back from a 17-point deficit and coach Bill Belichick called the infamous botched fourth-and-2 play from his own 28-yard line.
Luck has never beaten the Patriots, and there is still some uncertainty as to whether he will play in this game because of a shoulder injury. Indy is 3-2, ranked 24th in the league in scoring, and coach Chuck Pagano and Grigson are not on the same page.
New England, meanwhile, resembles a Super Bowl freight train led by a quarterback who, if his suspension had been upheld, would have seen his first action this week.
There won't be any talk of revenge emanating from the Patriots' locker room this week. Belichick is far too clever for that. He and Brady will espouse the party line -- they will try to win this football game just like any other -- but you can be sure that behind closed doors, Belichick is stirring up his own concoction of revenge.
That's what happened in the wake of Spygate, when the Hoodie ordered a code of silence outside the locker room but worked his troops into an outraged lather from within. As former Patriot Rodney Harrison explained it to me recently, "Once people started putting question marks on our organization and our team, that was it. ... We worked our asses off, and for anyone to question that ... it was a great boost to our team. It became our charge. It wasn't just 'Let's win' anymore, it was 'Let's blow these guys out.'"
Emotions must be corralled and channeled in the proper fashion. No one does that better than Brady.
Last week, the despicable Greg Hardy, who was convicted of domestic violence and accused of tossing his girlfriend onto a bed littered with assault rifles (he was later freed on appeal), bragged he'd come out "guns blazing" against New England and uttered some creepy comments about Brady's wife. When asked about it, No. 12 stuck to the usual script: He was just focusing on the game.
Hardy and his teammates had five sacks in the first half, but just before the intermission, Brady scampered into the end zone and unleashed one of his signature primal screams that are reserved for special moments.
After the 30-6 drubbing of the Cowboys in which Brady threw for 275 yards and two touchdowns, he addressed the media -- his composure restored -- and saluted Hardy for his fine play.
You can expect Brady to engage in similar behavior at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday night. He will remain calm, poised and professional but will allow himself one moment to let the Colts know (even if he never actually says it): "Deflate this!"
The Patriots are on to Indianapolis, and no matter what they say -- or, more to the point, what they don't say -- they have been waiting months for this.
And somebody is going to pay.