FOXBOROUGH, Massachusetts -- The New England Patriots' revenge mission kept right on rolling Sunday night, a sleek and perfectly operated football retribution apparatus that mowed down the Pittsburgh Steelers and came within one win of another ring, another notch on a belt for the ages, and another shot at the team's true rival.
No, not the Atlanta Falcons.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
In dispatching of Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers, 36-17, several things happened at once. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick secured their seventh Super Bowl appearances and notched their places as the greatest quarterback and head coach, respectively, the league has ever seen.
New England showed its utter resilience. Not age (Brady is 39), not suspension (those four game to start the season), not injury (Rob Gronkowski), not ridicule, not even the NFL's commissioner declaring your organization a full-scale bad guy has been able to thwart the Patriots' claim to more than a decade of NFL domination.
And the Patriots, in a city that in the days leading up to the AFC Championship Game oozed with resentment for Goodell and the league office, showed that at least in this case you don't need to seek redemption when you can get revenge instead.
It may be an amusing notion for most of us to watch Brady, Belichick and the Patriots force the NFL commissioner onto a stage with them in Houston. But a few days in Boston -- and a few minutes at Gillette Stadium -- show it's a deadly-serious mission here.
In bars and restaurants across Boston, Patriots fans talked openly about wanting Goodell to have to show up and deal with the Patriots in person, an unavoidable collision now that they're on their way to Super Bowl LI. Outside the stadium before Sunday's game, Boston accents made extra rich with a beer or two turned tailgating into the art of badmouthing the commissioner. One man's shirt, which got a rowdy applause, summed up the tenor and tone of this town and its beloved football team: "Goodell is a Douche."
But it spoke to the zeitgeist, and to a Patriots organization that those close to it will tell you is gleefully ready to take their reprisals on the road to Houston and the man who will be forced onto the podium with them if they can beat the Atlanta Falcons in two weeks' time.
There's more at play, of course. No quarterback has ever led a team to five Super Bowl wins, and Brady accomplishing that should shoot him past NFL greatest-of-all-time talk and move into the sphere of where he rates among all athletes in all sports over time. And a championship, of course, is its own remarkable reward.
Yet none of that was the focus when Robert Kraft, New England's owner, spoke to the crowd just after the win. He didn't mince words. His message from the dais on the field during the presentation of the Lamar Hunt Trophy was quite clearly directed at Goodell.
"For a number of reasons," he told the crowd, his voice dripping with sarcasm, "all of you in this stadium understand how big this win was. But we have to go to Houston and win one more."
While Brady demurred a few moments later and then again with the press, dodging any talk of the man who suspended him for four regular season games, he did his talking on the field.
All of this -- the unavoidable GOAT tag now firmly attached to Brady, the timelessness and wonder of what the Patriots have become, and certainly the revenge -- was encapsulated in Brady's night. He threw for a franchise-postseason-record 384 passing yards, besting his own record from 2014, tossed three touchdowns and posted a 127.5 QB-rating.
It's no coincidence Brady had one of his greatest postseason games ever. All game, the mood at Gillette Stadium bristled with contempt for the league itself and reminded anyone here that there are now two potential prizes at the end of this season: A trophy, and a commissioner who won't be able to hide.
In the third quarter, when the Patriots went up 33-9, former New England quarterback and current broadcaster Scott Zolak flashed on the big screen. He immediately lunged for a yellow sign. Holding it aloft, it read: "Where is Roger?"
The crowed went crazy, chanting a few moments later, "Roger! Roger! Roger!"
There can be no mistake: The Patriots are coming for Goodell, not Atlanta. The Falcons are merely in their way.