With a 36-15 dismantling of the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday's AFC title game, the Pats won their record ninth AFC championship and in two weeks New England will become the first franchise ever to appear in their ninth Super Bowl. This was the 11th AFC title game of both Bill Belichick's and Tom Brady's careers, and that duo is now 7-4 in those contests -- and 2-0 against Pittsburgh, the team they also beat to head to their third Super Bowl back in 2005.
Brady himself was simply masterful, spreading the ball around to nine different receivers in one of the most efficient performances of his playoff career. He finished the evening 32 of 42 for 384 yards and three touchdowns, good for a 127.5 passer rating -- the fourth-best of his storied postseason career. The 384 yards were a playoff career-high and he also moved into a tie with his childhood hero, Joe Montana, by throwing three-plus touchdowns in a postseason game for the ninth time in his career.
Brady wasn't alone in his dominance. The New England defense -- the much-maligned defense that had nevertheless finished the regular season No. 1 in points allowed -- had Pittsburgh's offense in a stranglehold pretty much right from the jump. The Steelers averaged south of five yards per play for most of the game, only nudging over that mark once things had gotten out of hand. Le'Veon Bell's injury (more on that later) contributed to the subpar performance, but the Patriot defense was already balling when Bell went down.
Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Jabaal Sheard, and Rob Ninkovich dominated up front, and by the end of the night, the Steelers had been held to just 2.7 yards per carry (six carries, 20 yards for Bell; 14 carries, 34 yards for injury replacement DeAngelo Williams). Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Eric Rowe, Patrick Chung, and Devin McCourty were flying all over the field, and they combined to hold Big Ben to just 6.7 yards per pass.
Roethlisberger could not find a rhythm with Antonio Brown, who was shadowed by Butler for most of the game (but not all; he was double-teamed on many of the snaps where Butler didn't follow him). They connected on seven of nine passes for 77 yards, but he was held in check for the most part until the game was already decided. Eli Rogers and Jesse James put forth admirable performances, but drops from Sammie Coates (dropped a deep ball on Pittsburgh's opening drive and forced a punt) and Cobi Hamilton (dropped a touchdown) took potential points off the board. Garbage time proved kind to the overall numbers, but the Pittsburgh passing game was truly out of sync for much of the evening.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying, basically, that the Patriots took care of business at home, just like a No. 1 seed is supposed to. Winning in such convincing fashion may have been unexpected, but that this team -- which had been considered the strongest in the AFC all year long -- is heading back to the Super Bowl yet again was not unexpected at all. They now have just one step left to complete.
Here are five more things to know about New England's 36-15 win.
1. Le'Veon leaves
Le'Veon Bell had arguably been the best player in the entire postseason heading into this game. He carried 59 times for 337 yards in Pittsburgh's first two playoff games, continuing the insane usage and production levels he established over the final six weeks of the regular season.
He had been so good that we felt there was no other way to express the key to this game than to wonder whether the Patriots would actually be able to hold him in check. As it turned out, that didn't exactly matter. Bell suffered a groin injury on the Steelers' third drive of the game while doing his trademark dance behind the line of scrimmage.
#Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell sustained a left groin injury. His return to today's game is questionable.— Burt Lauten (@SteelersPRBurt) January 23, 2017
He sat out the first of the series before returning on Pittsburgh's next possession, but he only lasted one play before ceding ground to DeAngelo Williams for the rest of the game. He ultimately played just 11 snaps.
DeAngelo did the best Bell impression that he could, up to and including hesitating, Le'Veon-style, on a touchdown run:
But it ultimately wasn't enough. The New England defense clearly did not fear Williams they same way they'd have feared Bell, and it's not out of line to draw a straight line from that lack of fear to Ben Roethlisberger's relatively subpar performance.
2. No rush
The blueprint for beating the Patriots in the playoffs has been set over the years: you have to get pressure on Brady without blitzing so that you can keep as many men as possible in coverage. The Steelers, needless to say, were not able to accomplish that goal.
Javon Hargrave got a key sack to hold the Pats to a field goal on their opening drive, but for the rest of the game, Brady had all the time in the world to sit in the pocket and pick the Pittsburgh secondary apart.
In the regular season, Tom Brady was under pressure on 30.9% of his drop backs.— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 23, 2017
Tonight in the first half: 8%#PITvsNE
That figure did not improve much in the second half. Per PFF, the Steelers pressured Brady on only six of his 45 drop backs. That's a rate of 13.3 percent -- not nearly good enough.
3. Hogan the hero
Yeah. So, the biggest star of the game wasn't Brady or Ben or Brown or Bell, it was Chris Hogan. He absolutely decimated the Pittsburgh defense to the run of nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns. (In other words: Julio Jones numbers.) How unexpected was his monster game? Well ...
Chris Hogan:— Kevin Negandhi (@KNegandhiESPN) January 23, 2017
Played 3 yrs of lacrosse at Penn St
Caught 12 career passes at Monmouth
Cut by 3 NFL teams
Star of AFC Championship game
Chris Hogan's last multi-TD game came on Nov. 18, 2005, as a member of Ramapo High School.https://t.co/3LPhQlNWxW— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurke_SI) January 23, 2017
First of all, shout out to Monmouth! I grew up in Monmouth County, about 15 minutes away from Monmouth University. I also had no idea Chris Hogan went there until today.
Seriously, though, this dude was wide freaking open all game. Here's a stat from after his second touchdown (keep in mind that he was wide open on like four more catches after this):
Chris Hogan currently averaging 4.22 yards of separation on his targets #NextGenStats— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) January 23, 2017
There was basically nobody near him on any of his grabs. Check out how open he is on these:
And that's just the touchdowns. He may have been even more open on his catches over the middle of the field. With so many New England weapons to worry about, it can be easy to forget about the guy wearing No. 15. That forgetfulness killed the Steelers in this one.
4. What's next for Pittsburgh
The Steelers will have pick No. 30 in the 2017 NFL Draft. It seems like a safe bet to expect them to address the defense yet again, with either a pass rusher or another defensive back. Their defense was not quite as suspect all season as it looked on Sunday, but it certainly held the offense back at times. Being able to get disrupt the opponent's passing game would go a long way toward helping them reach their goal next season.
5. What's next for New England
The Patriots, as mentioned at the top of this post, are headed to the Super Bowl for an NFL-record ninth time. They're 4-4 in their previous eight appearances and 4-2 in the Belichick-Brady era. If they can manage to defeat the Atlanta Falcons in two weeks (the Patriots opened as 3-point favorites), they'll move into a tie with the Dallas Cowboys for the second-most Super Bowls in NFL history. The Steelers themselves hold the current record with six Super Bowl championships.
Here's our live blog of the game.
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