From the moment the New England Patriotsbeat the Arizona Cardinals in the one game they seemed most likely to lose without Brady -- on the road, in prime time, in the first start of Jimmy Garoppolo's career -- the trajectory of the Patriots' season was set. That first month certified Bill Belichick's ability to adapt to his circumstances, without Brady and then, incredibly, without Garoppolo, too, shutting out the Houston Texans with rookie third-stringer Jacoby Brissett under center. But everything after -- the 13-1 record since Brady came off his suspension, the nearly flawless regular-season statistics, the relentlessness of the Patriots' offense even after Rob Gronkowski was hurt -- was testament to Brady's own ability to compartmentalize and carry on.
"The team was 3-1 at that point, so I didn't want to screw it up," Brady said this week. "The team was playing great. I just wanted to come in and do my job as best I could. I always try to be the same person and the same leader for our team. I've really tried to show up every day and work as hard as I can. That didn't change in October. That won't change tomorrow. That won't change next season."
But there were subtle changes this year, a barely perceptible frisson of tension that was never far from the smooth surface of Brady's public persona. He avoided questions about whether this season was about avenging the suspension, but he also never definitively said he was over it. Instead, he said in one recent appearance that perhaps he would share his feelings about Commissioner Roger Goodell after the season was over.
The Patriots seemed unusually relaxed and loose this week, and owner Robert Kraft, who has been the most outspoken about his ire over Brady's suspension, spoke of it being such a privilege to play in the Super Bowl that he wanted the players to relish and enjoy it. And then, earlier this week, it was revealed just how much was weighing on Brady all this time, and his carefully controlled emotions came ever so slightly loose. He choked up while saying his father is his hero, and not long after came a report by CSN New England that Brady's mother had been having health issues for more than a year and had been unable to attend a game all season.
"It has been a challenging year for my family for some personal reasons," he said.
In truth, it always has seemed overly simplistic to think that Brady's superlative performance this season was solely the product of the sting of scorn. Brady uses slights to drive himself like many athletes do -- that he was a sixth-round draft pick is fuel that will help propel him all the way to eventual induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- but the suggestion that his suspension was responsible seemed somehow to shortchange everything else about Brady's extraordinary effort, from his minutely controlled diet to his exacting demands of his teammates.
At 39, he is playing with the precision of his 10-years-younger self. His 67.4 completion percentage is second-best of his career (he completed 68.9 percent in 2007), and his interception rate of 0.5 percent is the lowest of his career. He can still throw a deep ball and slide from pressure in the pocket. Is Brady still angry at the NFL about his suspension? Probably, and perhaps he always will be. Is that why he is as sharp now as when he was 25? Only if you include the fact that one less month of physical battering in September -- replaced by games of catch with college players and an Italian vacation with his wife -- might mean his body feels fresher this late in the NFL year than it has in any of his previous seasons.
Still, listen closely to Brady in recent days and it is clear that a quest for respect is ongoing.
"At different parts, I looked at a lot of the guys that I've played with over the years, and there was a time when the Patriots weren't a very good team, and no one gave us a lot of respect," Brady said. "Teammates like Rodney Harrison, that always said, 'They don't respect us! They don't respect us!' I think that was always a good metric for us. I think feeling that way and feeling like you need to earn other people's respect is a great source of motivation for me. I think my main motivation is representing my family, representing my team, representing my teammates, representing our fans. That gets me motivated every week. I want to do great for them. I want to try to go out and win every time we take the field."
He and the Patriots have done nearly that again. This would seem to be another legacy-defining moment for them, and to reach it, they will have to outduel an offense even more explosive than their own and overcome a fast, young defense. Brady grew up idolizing Joe Montana, and if Brady completes the oddest season of his career with a victory Sunday, he will move ahead of Montana with five Super Bowl championships. Wherever the suspension will be noted on his résumé -- and whatever impetus it has provided for this season -- it will be overwhelmed by all of those championships.
Tony Dungy once said Peyton Manning had dominated his era like no one except maybe Otto Graham, who played 10 seasons of professional football and took his team to the championship game each season, winning seven of them.
But that was before Brady reached his most recent three Super Bowls, before he won his fourth championship. Before it became clear that a season blemished by suspension might very well culminate in celebration.