"That was a chance to set a tone, and we had to stop them," Johnson said. "It made a hell of a statement."
On the next play Brady made an even more resounding statement, connecting with wideout Deion Branch on a 60-yard touchdown pass that was as pretty as New England's autumn foliage. The call was Ride 130 Cross Stalk, and Brady sold the pass perfectly with a deft fake to running back Corey Dillon. The quarterback first looked to wideout David Givens, who ran a crossing pattern that attracted the attention of Pittsburgh's splendid second-year safety, Troy Polamalu. "When I saw the safety bite, I knew I had Deion deep," Brady said after the game. "He ran a great route, and when I let it go I figured, We've got a damn good shot. But when you throw the ball 55 or 60 yards, you never really know until it lands." The ball dropped gently into the outstretched hands of Branch, who was a step ahead of cornerback Deshea Townsend when he caught it at the 15.
After the Steelers cut the lead to 10--3 on Jeff Reed's 43-yard field goal, Brady went up top for Branch again, this time delivering an equally picturesque 45-yard spiral that Branch held on to even after a crushing hit from Polamalu. Two plays later Brady, after calling an audible, threw a quick hitch to Givens, who raced down the right sideline for a nine-yard score with 7:12 remaining in the second quarter.
Pittsburgh drove to the 19 before Roethlisberger made the horrible mistake that Brady never seems to, serving up a pass in the flat for tight end Jerame Tuman that Harrison swiped. Eighty-seven yards later it was 24--3, and though the Steelers would rally to keep things interesting until the middle of the fourth quarter, Brady and the Patriots had left them out in the cold.
If this wasn't quite the equivalent of the flu-stricken Montana's famous Chicken Soup Game, a frantic comeback effort that gave Notre Dame a win over Houston in the 1979 Cotton Bowl, it was close enough. While holed up at the Four Points, Brady hit up room service for a couple of bowls of wedding soup.
Numerous other Patriots were also hit by a flu bug during the week. Many more were cranky after having to fly to Pittsburgh a day earlier than scheduled to avoid the snowstorm that hit the Northeast. As always, coach Bill Belichick, the Bill Walsh to Brady's Montana, persuaded his players to put aside those potential distractions in the name of a higher calling: becoming what must be one of the most low-key dynasties in recent history.
"Other teams might showboat, but we're coached to expect to make great plays, so when we do, we don't feel a need to jump up and down like it's a big deal," said 11th-year outside linebacker Willie McGinest. "It's like the difference between guys who get a little bit of cash and wear flashy clothes and a bunch of bling and cruise around in fly rides, and the really rich dudes who chill in jeans and sneakers. You can't even tell they have money, but they're the biggest players of all."
A few hours after the game, as he prepared to board the Patriots' bus outside Heinz, the NFL's best big-game player winced as the subzero wind whipped through his pinstriped suit. "That was sweet," Brady said hoarsely about the victory, summoning a smile. He was feeling shivers once more, but this time so were a lot of people who'd watched him play.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
RUSHING NE: Dillon 24--73 (1 TD), Branch 2--37 (1 TD), Faulk 3--20, Brady 2--neg. 2, Givens 1--neg. 2. PITT: Bettis 17--64 (1 TD), Roethlisberger 5--45, Haynes 5--28, Staley 10--26.