By SIMON BRADY
The New England Patriots are one step closer to capturing their fifth Super Bowl title after an emphatic victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game Sunday night. New England rode the momentum provided by their home crowd in Gillette Stadium to win 36-17.
The Patriots have been almost guaranteed to go home winners when getting out to a fast start in Foxboro. New England improved to an astonishing 101-1 record when leading at halftime in home games. Sunday night was another one of those games, as New England led 17-9 at intermission.
The lead could’ve been far more scarce had it not been for a huge defensive goal line stand late in the first half. With Pittsburgh on the one yard line, almost sure to score and make it a 17-13 game, the Matt Patricia’s led Patriot defense stopped them for three consecutive downs. The Steelers were forced to settle for a field goal, and their potent offense’s confidence and productivity faltered from that point on.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had a near superb stat line, throwing for 384 yards on 32/42 passing, including three touchdowns passes. Brady continues to defy father time, playing the best football of his career at age 39.
Outside of Brady, the star of the game was his favorite receiving target of the night, wide receiver Chris Hogan. With nine receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns, Hogan torched a weak Steeler secondary. The 180 yards totaled by Hogan marks the most by a Patriot receiver in playoff game history, surpassing Deion Branch who previously held the record with an 153 yard game at Denver in 2006.
Hogan has proven to be the best offseason addition for the Patriots. Previously contributing at a minimal level for division foes Miami and Buffalo, Hogan has finally found a home in Foxboro, proving to be a key component to the Patriots’ receiving core this season.
Although Hogan’s break out game Sunday may be surprising to some, it certainly wasn’t to the man throwing to him. In his postgame press conference, Brady pointed out that Hogan had the highest yards per reception average in all of the NFL coming into Sunday’s game. The Patriots were fully aware that Hogan had big play capability coming in, and he certainly delivered.
Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman complemented Hogan quite nicely as he had a big day of his own. Edelman totaled 118 receiving yards on 8 catches. And although the New England running game was not much of a factor, Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount got it going late piling up 47 yards on 16 carries, including a one yard touchdown run that effectively put the game out of hand for Pittsburgh late in the third quarter.
Meanwhile on the other sideline, the Pittsburgh Steelers offense led by a great quarterback in his own right, Ben Roethlisberger, did not have nearly as much success as New England. Roethlisberger totaled 31/47 yards passing for 314 yards, with a touchdown and interception each. He finished with an underwhelming 57.2 quarterback rating, while Brady had a staggering 90.4 QBR.
Much of Pittsburgh’s lack of production on offense can be attributed to the loss of stud running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell went down early in the first quarter with a groin injury that would keep him sidelined the rest of the game. He mustered out a mere 20 yards on six carries before going down. Bell was a huge piece to the Steelers high powered offense these playoffs, combining for 337 yards running in the Steelers’ previous two playoff games.
Serviceable veteran backup tailback DeAngelo Williams did all he could to compensate for Bell’s absence, but only registered 34 yards on 14 carries.
In an interesting subplot throughout the week leading up to the game Sunday, controversy swirled around the Steelers locker room. Following the 18-16 divisional round victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, star wide receiver Antonio Brown streamed the locker room celebration on Facebook Live.
He continued to broadcast the elated scene in the locker room through head coach Mike Tomlin’s victory speech. His head coach’s’ speech contained some vulgar language toward the Patriots.
During his weekly press conference, Tomlin called out Brown saying his actions were selfish and that there’d certainly be repercussions for his foolish behavior. On Wednesday, Tomlin kept to that word and announced in front of the team that he would impose a $10,000 fine on Brown.
Given the Steelers’ poor performance, and Brown’s relatively pedestrian day for his standards, making just seven grabs for 77 yards, speculation will ensue as to how much this may have distracted the team leading up to Sunday night.
Patriots fans would rather not acknowledge these potential Steeler distractions, or let it deviate from their dominant performance. The focus for the Patriots now shifts to NRG Stadium in Houston, the site of Super Bowl LI, next Sunday Feb. 5.
New England has their hands full as they take on Matt Ryan and the explosive Atlanta Falcons. Like New England, Atlanta took care of business Sunday as they claimed the NFC crown with a decisive 44-21 win over the Green Bay Packers, snapping their eight game winning streak.
In this upcoming Super Bowl, the ramifications for Brady and head coach Bill Belichick’s legacies are far higher than usual. The two have been the catalysts of the Patriots success since their arrival, and have a chance to put themselves in a class of their own by adding another Super Bowl victory to their resumes.
For Brady, a potential fifth Super Bowl win next Sunday would make him the winningest quarterback in NFL history, surpassing Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw who each had four Super Bowl victories. Given this, one more Super Bowl victory for Brady would secure his status as the greatest quarterback in NFL history in many people’s eyes.
On the flip side, Belichick can become the winningest coach in Super Bowl history. He is currently tied with the late Chuck Noll, former Steelers coach, with four Super Bowl victories. This tremendous quarterback-coach tandem can certainly make history like we have never seen in the NFL’s 97 year history in this upcoming Super Bowl.
Nothing would satisfy Brady and Patriot fans more than having their 2017 campaign conclude with commissioner Roger Goodell, who imposed a four game suspension on Tom Brady this season for the DeflateGate scandal, hand him and the New England Patriots the Lombardi Trophy following triumph over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.