FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - From the time Tom Brady and the Patriots were first investigated nearly eight months ago for allegedly using underinflated footballs in the AFC Championship Game to the moment he ran out of the tunnel for Thursday night's regular-season opener, the wait at times was often unbearable.
Brady wanted nothing more than to have the right to start the season on the field and not on the suspended list, and after a federal judge granted that request a week ago, the emotions welled up inside him.
"It was a pretty special night," Brady said after turning those emotions into another signature performance -- four touchdown passes -- in a 28-21 win over the Steelers. "We haven't had one of these games in a long time. I love being out there with my teammates, so yes, it was really something to look forward to."
Brady, who was 25-for-32 for 288 yards, threw three touchdown passes to Rob Gronkowski and another to Scott Chandler. He also set a franchise record with 19 straight completions and again showed why he is arguably the best quarterback of all time. But it wasn't until a week earlier that he was assured of being in position to do that.
Brady won a ruling in federal court a week ago Thursday when Judge Richard Berman overturned his four-game suspension in connection with his alleged role in purposely underinflating the footballs in the conference title game last Jan. 18 against the Colts.
Returning after DeflateGate was a major theme coming into the game, and Brady certainly showed the simmering emotions from his ordeal. He also displayed a clinical understanding of what he needed to do to turn that emotion into the desired result against the Steelers.
Brady went 15-for-17 for 172 yards and two touchdown passes -- both to Gronkowski -- in building a 14-3 halftime lead. He added another pair of touchdown passes in the second half to make it 28-14 before the Steelers scored with two seconds left.
"Yeah, I was pretty excited, and I think the regulars around here are pretty excited, especially running out there in the pre-game," he said. "Coach says you have one week and you put everything you can into that one three-hour performance. It's just a big build-up. I felt like we had nine different review sessions to go over all the things to cover."
His work with Gronkowski was terrific, especially given that the tight end, who has overcome several injuries in recent years, didn't play in the preseason to make sure he was fresh for the regular season. Asked if it was difficult to overcome that lack of playing time in games, Brady grinned. "You don't really forget how to play in seven months," he said. "It's a little different than the preseason. Gronk made a lot of big plays tonight."
Gronkowski's first TD came off a busted coverage. Brady immediately noticed that no one was covering Gronkowski when he lined up to the right of the formation at the Steelers' 16. Brady clapped his hands to get rookie Dave Andrews to snap the ball early, then quickly threw the ball to Gronkowski, who raced down the right side for the score.
On the Patriots' next possession, Brady lofted a pass over two defenders that Gronkowski caught in the back of the end zone for a 6-yard score to make it 14-0. Gronkowski's third touchdown off a fade route from the 1-yard line gave the Patriots a 28-14 lead in the fourth quarter.
"It felt great to get out there, no doubt," Gronkowski said. "After not playing all preseason, it's different when you go out there and play for real versus other opponents. What's so sweet was getting that win tonight. Nothing makes it better than having a win."
"It's certainly good to be 1-0," Brady said. "Last year, we were 0-1, so we're off to a better start."