FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Nearly eight months after the start of a league investigation in which Tom Brady was found to be complicit in a plan to purposely under-inflate footballs in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots quarterback finally took the field after scoring a stunning blow against a league that was intent on punishing him for his alleged misdeeds.
It could not have been a more satisfying moment for the four-time Super Bowl champion and the adoring fans who have unconditionally supported him throughout his ordeal.
Cleared by a federal judge just a week earlier, Brady returned with a signature performance in a 28-21 win over the Steelers, putting an exclamation point on his contention that he never did anything wrong and that the four-game suspension handed down by the NFL was both unfair and misguided. Just hours after the Patriots raised their championship banner before a raucous crowd at Gillette Stadium, the same place where the investigation began into the alleged misdeeds of Brady and two Patriots' equipment staffers, Brady ran off the field on the heels of yet another stunningly effective showing.
Brady finished 25-of-32 for 288 yards and four touchdown passes as he mastered the Steelers' defense and showed the NFL that his months-long legal battle against the league had no immediate effect on his game.
The Steelers scored with two seconds left on a Ben Roethlisberger pass to Antonio Brown.
Brady won a ruling in federal court last Thursday, when Judge Richard Berman overturned his four-game suspension in connection with Brady's alleged role in purposely underinflating the footballs in the AFC Championship Game last Jan. 18 at Gillette Stadium. Berman ruled the NFL did not properly notify Brady that he could be suspended for not fully cooperating in the league's investigation, and that the league failed in not allowing Brady to cross-examine league attorney Jeff Pash, who co-authored a report on the matter with attorney Ted Wells.
Brady was masterful in the first half, going 15-of-17 for 172 yards and two touchdowns, both to All Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, as the Patriots built a 14-3 lead. And the future Hall of Fame quarterback kept it going in the second half, again using Gronkowski as his go-to guy in upping the score to 28-14 midway through the fourth quarter.
It took Brady a few series to find his groove, and once he did, the Patriots took a 14-0 second-quarter lead. He moved the Patriots 90 yards on 13 plays using mostly short throws and finishing off the drive with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Gronkowski. The tight end lined up to the right of the formation and was initially left uncovered by the Steelers. Brady noticed right away and called for a quick snap from rookie center David Andrews, who was replacing the injured Bryan Stork. Brady threw into the right flat and Gronkowski did the rest, racing down the right side and tiptoeing into the end zone for the score.
But Brady picked right up where he left off in the third quarter, marching the Patriots to another touchdown on a nine-play, 80-yard drive on their first possession. The big play was a pass interference in the end zone against Steelers defensive back Will Allen, who bumped wide receiver Julian Edelman in the end zone. Two plays later, Brady found tight end Wes Chandler for a one-yard touchdown to give New England a 21-3 lead.
The Steelers had a chance to make it a field goal game late in the third quarter, but couldn't get into the end zone after making it to the 1 on a pass interference call on tight end Heath Miller. The Steelers were penalized for a false start on third down, pushing the ball back to the six, but Roethlisberger, instead of attempting a pass in the end zone, handed off to DeAngelo Williams, who was tackled for a loss of one yard. The Steelers settled for a field goal to make it 21-14.
But Brady answered that score with another huge drive and finished it off with another touchdown pass to Gronkowski. It was a 52-yard catch-and-run by Gronkowski that keyed the drive, and the tight end then came to the rescue on a fumble by running back Dion Lewis near the goal line. Gronkowski recovered the ball just half a foot from the goal line, and then caught his third TD of the night on a fade route to the left corner of the end zone to make it 28-14.