There will be no ceremony to mark the occasion, no public nod to one of the most infamous situations in NFL history. But make no mistake: Neither Tom Brady nor Bill Belichick, and certainly not the legions of Patriots fans outraged by the controversy, will ever forget what occurred after the night of Jan. 18, 2015.
This was the AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Colts at sold-out Gillette Stadium, and there wasn’t an outward trace of the storm that was about to engulf the future Hall of Fame quarterback. But in the officials’ locker room, the footballs used in the first half were being measured to see if they were properly inflated.
Thus began Deflategate, an all-consuming dispute that cost millions to prosecute, reached a federal appeals court and didn’t officially end until Brady’s four-game suspension concluded on Oct. 3, 2016. It was a 21-month odyssey that captivated, angered and even amused anyone remotely familiar with the debate, and the reverberations still can be felt throughout the sports world.
And now, four days after the two-year anniversary of the AFC title game that started it all, Brady’s Patriots are back in the same spot at Gillette Stadium.
Which means that Brady is one step away from being in position to win the Super Bowl for the second time in the last three years and receive congratulations from the man who handed down his suspension.
Commissioner Roger Goodell won’t be at Sunday night’s Patriots-Steelers game, but Patriots fans no doubt will have the commissioner on their minds as they watch Brady try to get to the Super Bowl for the seventh time in his remarkable career.
But if Brady is motivated by Deflategate, he isn’t showing it.
“I think there’s always something going on,” he said this past week. “I think it’s just important for us to focus on what our job is, and that’s to go out and play well. Our job is to show up and try to do a great job when we get the chance, and that’s the way it’s been all year for us.”
And what about Goodell, who is attending the NFC Championship Game between the Falcons and Packers in Atlanta?
“I’m focused on the Steelers,” Brady said.
Did you expect anything different?
Brady is a master at not only tuning out distractions but turning them into motivation. And though he’ll never admit the shadow of Deflategate is in his thoughts, you’d better believe it only adds to his determination to reach the pinnacle of NFL success by becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to win the Super Bowl five times.
So the only thing he’ll admit to is a complete focus on the Steelers’ defense. And if form holds true, Brady should expect to have continued success against that group, because he has dominated Pittsburgh during the Mike Tomlin era.
In fact, he has been just about perfect. In six games against the Steelers since Tomlin took over from Bill Cowher, Brady is 5-1 with 19 touchdown passes and zero interceptions. He feasts by finding the holes in the zone schemes upon which Tomlin relies so heavily.
Ask Brady, though, and he’ll tell you Tomlin’s defense is akin to the Steel Curtain defenses of the 1970s Steelers.
“It’s a tough defense,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of good players on their side of the ball, at all levels of the defense. We’re playing a great football team.”
Brady gets the decided edge over the Steelers, but he knows he has to clean up some things from an unusually average performance in last week’s 34-16 win over the Texans in the divisional round. Brady had two touchdown passes but also threw two interceptions, matching his entire total in his 12-game regular season.
But as Brady has shown countless times before, he is a master at adjusting to his circumstances, regardless of the opponent and regardless of whatever controversy might surround him — Deflategate included.
“It’s the whole process,” he said about his painstaking game preparation. “You just can’t skip through all of those things and get right to the game. You’ve got to go through the whole thing and you’ve got to go through the whole week; the film study and all the practices, all the meetings, walk-throughs. It’s a lot to prepare for, especially against a great defense. [/DROPCAP]a team that’s won eight or nine straight and is playing as well as they’ve played all season, scoring points.”
Brady’s laser focus no doubt will be put to the test. “We have to play our best game of the year,” he said. “I think that’s what it comes down to. We’ve got to all do whatever it takes to be at our best for those three hours on Sunday night. We’re going to have to just rise to the occasion.”
Two years after Deflategate germinated inside the darkened hallways beneath Gillette Stadium, there’s no reason to believe Brady can’t rise to the occasion yet again.