FOXBORO -- For a moment, however brief, they lost control. With a comfortable lead and their offense humming at a rate it hadn't experienced this season, the Patriots began to give the game away.
First there was Stevan Ridley's fumble two minutes into the second half. Then Rob Ninkovich went out injured. Then Steve Gregory went out injured. The Steelers took advantage, and in the first eight minutes of the third quarter, the Patriots relinquished a two-touchdown lead, and the score was tied, 24-24.
But the Patriots have Tom Brady, and all was well for them because Brady was great.
The Patriots quarterback led his team to four touchdown-scoring drives in the second half and came away with an electric 55-31 win over the Steelers.
Brady lit it up, throwing for 432 yards in all and four touchdowns on 23-of-33 passing.
"It feels good," Brady said after the game. "They don't always go like that. It was a fun day. Good execution. For the most part that was good execution. You wake up in the morning, you don't think they're going to be like that. That was pretty sweet."
There was no talk of Brady's injured right hand, as there had been a week prior during a win over the Dolphins. There was no wondering when Brady and his fresh-faced receiving corps might find its rhythm, as had been the case earlier this season. This was pure, unadulterated Brady dominance.
Even the Steelers recognized it.
"Tom Brady is one of the greatest," Steelers safety Shamarko Thomas said. "He's smart so it's probably execution and scheme. He can read coverages and make plays, and he made big-time plays today."
"He had it working today," said Steelers safety Ryan Clark. "He hit all the spots he was supposed to. If there was a weakness in the defense, Brady found it."
Ben Roethlisberger's two touchdown passes to Jericho Cotchery -- one for 20 yards, the other for eight -- early in the third quarter were quickly forgotten by the Gillette Stadium crowd thanks to their quarterback's precision.
After a Stephen Gostkowski 32-yard field goal to make the score 27-24, and a Steelers three-and-out, a Julian Edelman 43-yard punt return set up Brady's first touchdown of the second half, a well-executed 17-yard back-shoulder throw to rookie receiver Aaron Dobson.
Their next drive? Just as easy-going. Eight plays covered 61 yards in less than four minutes and Stevan Ridley plunged into the end zone from five yards out for his second score of the game. He finished with 115 yards rushing, and was not benched for a single snap despite his fumble.
Roethlisberger found Cotchery -- reprising his roll as thorn in the side of Bill Belichick that he so enjoyed as a member of the Jets -- in the end zone for a third time to make the score 41-31 with three minutes left. But the resulting kickoff meant another possession for the Patriots, and another possession for the Patriots, at that point, meant another score.
This one came quickly.
On the second play of the drive, Brady sailed a long pass down the left sideline to Dobson, who threw his hand in the air to alert his quarterback, "Hey, I'm burning these guys!," and hit the rookie in stride for an 81-yard touchdown.
Desperate for points, Roethlisberger and the Steelers took to the air again. Under pressure -- which was a common theme as he was sacked five times for 29 yards -- Big Ben threw a pass almost directly into the arms of Patriots rookie safety Duron Harmon, who didn't have a Pittsburgh receiver within 10 yards of him.
Two plays later, guess what? The scoreboard operator went back to work. LeGarrette Blount had back-to-back runs of 23 and five yards to get into the end zone and give New England -- mercifully for the Steelers -- its final touchdown of the game.
As the two teams left the field, Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days" blared over the public address speakers, a not-so-subtle nod to the days of seasons past when Brady and his offense seemed to score at will.
It was a historic offensive output by the Patriots in more ways than one.
Brady hit several milestones:
* His 432 yards passing were the third most in Patriots history.
* He passed Fran Tarkenton to take seventh on the NFL's all-time passing-yardage list.
* His four touchdowns without an interception was his 15th such game, the most all-time.
The 55 points given up by the Steelers were the most ever by a franchise that has so long been revered for its defensive prowess.
"I thought we hung in there, made some plays in all three phases, scored some points, converted some scoring opportunities we had," Belichick said. "We've got a lot of football left. There's a long way to go."
After two weeks of less-than-Bradylike performances, early on the Patriots offense showed signs that it was going to run as smoothly as it has at any point this season.
It didn't produce a score in either of its first two drives of the game -- Ridley was denied the end zone on a fourth-down one-yard plunge with about four-and-a-half minutes remaining in the first quarter -- but the Steelers helped get them started soon thereafter.
Throwing out of his own end zone and with Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes in his face, Roethlisberger heaved an ill-advised pass to Antonio Brown that fluttered in the air just long enough for Pats safety Devin McCourty to race over and pick it off.
One play later, Brady threw to a wide-open Danny Amendola for a 34-yard touchdown. The Patriots were on the board, and so was Amendola -- it was his first score as a member of the Patriots.
After the Patriots defense got a turnover on downs when it stuffed Le'Veon Bell on a fourth-and-one try, New England's offense marched 67 yards on just six plays. The exclamation point on the drive came when Rob Gronkowski reeled in a back-shoulder throw from Brady, held on to the ball after taking a shot from Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, and fell into the end zone for his first touchdown of the season. Of course, his first post-touchdown spike followed.
Gronkowski finished with a career-high nine grabs for 143 yards, but even those numbers belied all he did for the Patriots offense. Running down the middle of the field and attracting Steelers defenders, lanes opened for Brady to find his other receivers. He hit six of them on the day, and three finished with over 100 yards (Dobson had 130, Amendola had 122).
Both teams traded field goals on their next two drives, and then the Steelers offense found some life. A Jonathan Dwyer 30-yard run set up Pittsburgh's next play, a 27-yard pitch and catch from Roethlisberger to Brown that sailed over the back of Pats corner Alfonzo Dennard.
But whatever momentum the Steelers gained from that score, the Patriots seized right back with an immaculately-run two-minute drill, which, the Patriots would admit, had plenty of help from an over-aggressive Pittsburgh defense.
Two completions to Dobson, an 11-yard run by Brandon Bolden and two pass interference penalties -- one committed by Thomas on Gronkowski in the end zone -- set up Ridley's first touchdown run of the day, from one-yard out. With that, the Patriots took a 24-10 lead into halftime.
Though they relinquished their advantage and lost control of the game for an instant, however brief, they never fell behind in front of their home crowd, which included several members from the World Series champion Red Sox, who were celebrated before the game.
"Not sure how it all happened," Belichick said. "We may have got our inspiration from the Red Sox. Big point output. That's always good."
The Patriots now go into the bye week at 7-2 and atop their division, a pretty good spot to be.
Considering all the injuries they've suffered through nine weeks -- including injuries on Sunday that knocked out defensive starters Ninkovich (foot) and Gregory (thumb) and receiver Austin Collie (knee) -- they'll certainly take it.
"It's been a process for us, but at the bye, 7-2 isn't bad," Brady said. "Hopefully our best football is ahead of us."