PITTSBURGH -- Only one thing matters to the Patriots after a game.
But Sunday at Heinz Field, after being batted around by a supposed paper tiger Steelers team, there was something else. There was a positive thread weaved through New England's 25-17 loss, Bill Belichick's grumbled murmuring, and a largely quiet locker room.
The Patriots running back returned to action for the first time since September 2010. A torn ACL sidelined Faulk for 13 months and it wasn't a big roster blow just because he's the Patriots' all-time leader in all-purpose yards (12,247), but because of his range. Faulk was also used for returns on special teams and as a check down receiver on third down. His presence as a locker room leader made him invaluable and never wavered throughout the rehabilitation process. Hell, there's almost a mythological aspect to the man because his 13-season tenure dates P.B: Pre-Belichick.
So Faulk's reemergence Sunday was noted with anticipation. Yet he only gave himself a minute to reflect.
"I tell you, it was only one moment: walking in for warm-ups, being able to go on the field and have a uniform on. That was it," he said. "Other than that, it was time to play the game. The game was the most important thing."
For his teammates, having Faulk back is an important part of the plan. Expectations of easing the 35-year old back into game play were quickly blown up -- not only did he start, but his 11 touches (six rushes, five receptions) led all Patriots.
Finally, Tom Brady was reunited with one of the most reliable pass-catching backs of his career, and the chemistry remained. The quarterback was thrilled.
"He's such a spark plug for our offense," Brady said. "He does so many things well. For a guy who didn't play football in a year, it certainly didn't look like it. He played well, played hard, made some big plays running the ball, catching the ball. I'm sure he's going to be sore tomorrow; he took some big hits. But it's great to have him back."
Were they surprised at how fresh he looked? Were eyebrows raised on the bench after his fantastic blitz pickup on a Brady touchdown pass? Was there any doubt Faulk could keep up? Deion Branch shook off the notion firmly.
"No, no, no," he said. "He's been doing it during the weeks in his rehab, looking real good.
"He's a leader, a great guy to have on the team. He's one of the guys I leaned on when I first came in to the league. It was just good for him to be back on the football field. I went through the same injury that he had, the same bounce back. So I know the determination, the passion that he has for the game, and the will that he has to be back on the field with the guys."
Still, there's a fundamental change. Now that he's back, Faulk's focus is on moving forward instead of playing catch-up. He is bound by a small knee brace but shrugged it off. He took some hard hits and shrugged those off too. He's thankful for every bump and bruise because the pain he deals with now is the same heartbreak as the other 52.
"I'm happy for playing, but at the same time, we lost the game. The happiness is going away," Faulk said.
"When you do what you love to do, you think about it and always be aware of it. But at the same time, when you lose a game you're kind of depressed."
Because, once again, the game is the most important thing.