GLENDALE, Ariz. - The cloud of suspicion may not go away anytime soon -- if ever -- but for one night, with the eyes of the world on him and the questions of fair play still clouding his reputation, Tom Brady's greatness flashed in a way that it does for only the game's most historic players.
Brady won't know the results of an NFL investigation into whether he and /or the Patriots purposely used deflated footballs in the first half of their 45-7 AFC Championship Game win over the Colts -- an issue that mushroomed into a national controversy -- for a while. And if it turns out that he or someone else in the organization was responsible, his legacy certainly will be tainted at some level.
If he is absolved of all involvement -- which is certainly the hope here, given how much you want his brilliance to be untainted -- the questions will go away. Even if it takes a while before that day comes.
In the meantime, with footballs that were fully inflated and taken out of the hands of the Patriots' ball boys because that's the way they do it in Super Bowls, Brady gave us yet another masterful game Sunday night. But no sense of vindication. At least none that he'd admit publicly.
"No, I don't feel any," he said in answer to the only question he was asked -- albeit indirectly -- about the controversy.
Brady joined his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, and Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks with four Super Bowl victories. It was an MVP performance for the ages, with Brady rallying his team from a 10-point deficit by throwing his third and fourth touchdown passes in the final eight minutes of a stunning 28-24 win over the defending champion Seahawks.
Brady completed all nine passes on what proved to be the winning drive, finishing it off with a 3-yard touchdown pass with 2:02 left to Julian Edelman.
The comeback looked as if it might be buried by an equally mesmerizing one by Russell Wilson, who hooked up with wide receiver Jermaine Kearse on a David Tyree-like 33-yard reception that put the ball at the Patriots' 5 with 1:06 to play.
But Brady's effort held up when Wilson was intercepted in the end zone by cornerback Malcolm Butler with 20 seconds left.
Brady's sideline reaction went from are-you-kidding-me incredulity after the Kearse reception to we-did-this jubilation after the Butler interception. Somehow, he had done it. For the first time since winning his third Super Bowl title after the 2004 season, and after two crushing losses to the Giants in his last two Super Bowl appearances, Brady was a champion again.
"Unbelievable play by Malcolm," Brady said. "I saw the interception and couldn't believe it. What a play. A championship play. My guys made them."
Brady, 37, is the second-oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, behind only John Elway, who was 38 when he won his second straight Super Bowl title and walked off into his retirement.
Facing the NFL's best defense -- a unit considered by many to rival the greatest defenses ever -- Brady was 37-for-50 for 328 yards, four touchdown passes and two interceptions. That's the most completions by any Super Bowl quarterback, and Brady's 13 career Super Bowl TD passes also are the most. He surpassed Montana, who had 11.
Montana himself placed the blame for the AFC Championship Game deflation squarely on Brady's shoulders, suggesting in an interview with The Boston Globe late last week that only the Patriots' quarterback could have been responsible for that rules violation.
He also suggested the rule itself is not necessary, arguing that quarterbacks ought to be allowed to inflate the ball to a level they're most comfortable with.
If Brady willfully broke the rules about football inflation, the issue is about fair play. The issue is about cheating. And we won't know if that is the case until after the NFL's weeks-long investigation -- which has yet to include direct answers from Brady and Bill Belichick to league officials -- is complete.
And even after attorney Ted Wells, who is overseeing the investigation, produces his report, we still might not know.
On this night, though, Brady was able to enjoy the result of his athletic brilliance after an improbable ending gave him his fourth title in a 14-year span.
"It wasn't the way we drew it up,'' Brady said. "Throwing a couple picks didn't help. A lot of mental toughness. Our team has had it all year. That's a great football team we beat.''
He then grew emotional, saying: "I want to thank my family, all my friends who supported me. All my teammates, I love you guys. This is for you guys.''
It has been the most trying period of his career, especially for a guy who has experienced mostly reverential treatment. But it sounds as though there will be a lot more to come from Brady, and the comparisons to the greatest ever -- or whether he IS the greatest ever -- will continue.
"I never put myself in those discussions," Brady said. "That's not how I think. There's so many great players that have been on so many great teams that haven't won it, and I think you've got to just enjoy the moment. It's incredible to experience this feeling once and I've been fortunate to play on four really great teams, so I'm really blessed."
There will be time for more debate and time for more answers -- or more questions, if the league's investigation into DeflateGate doesn't produce definitive results.
For now, there is another brilliant moment for a quarterback who has had so many in his improbable journey from sixth-round pick in 2000 to all-time great 15 years later.
For now, Brady can enjoy another moment of transcendence.