36 thoughts on the Patriots’ AFC Championship Game victory over the Steelers

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are headed to their seventh Super Bowl in the past 16 years.

Tom Brady and Julian Edelman celebrate during the Patriots' 36-17 victory over the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.

COMMENTARY

1. Let’s start not just with an appreciation of the accomplishment. Let’s also marvel at the ridiculous familiarity of the accomplishment. With a 36-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers — a worthy and overmatched foe at once — the Patriots advance to their seventh Super Bowl of the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era. They have participated in 11 conference championship games, more than any coach, more than any single player. If it seems like they are in this thing every year, well, it was their sixth straight appearance in the game. This is unprecedented. The league is designed for this to be impossible.

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2. And yet here they are, headed to the Super Bowl for the seventh time in 16 seasons. The milestones are mind-bending, the accolades something beyond extraordinary, and yet it’s our norm. I don’t need to remind you to appreciate it … but let’s appreciate it anyway. Anyone got an adjective stronger than amazing?

3. We’re going to be seeing that LeGarrette Blount run for a long time, and if you don’t know the one I mean, you’re going to be in for a treat when you finally get around to watching the game.

4. I counted seven Steelers that were along for the ride on his 18-yard run in the third quarter, but if you told me, oh, Jack Lambert and Greg Lloyd were getting trampled at the bottom of the pile I might believe you.

5. That run was out of an Earl Campbell NFL Films tribute. Or a Bo Jackson Tecmo Bowl highlight. You pick.

6. Loved that the Patriots gave the ball right back to him on the next play for a 1-yard TD run, capping an eight-play, 88-yard drive and putting the Patriots up 33-9. Talk about earning the honor. I was surprised he didn’t do his usual pose with the End Zone Militia, though. By my headcount, there are fewer of them than there were of Steelers who failed to tackle him on the previous play.

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7. Blount had his highlights, but his final stat line wasn’t spectacular (16 carries, 47 yards, 1 TD). Tom Brady’s stat line was spectacular (32 of 42, 382 yards, 3 TDs, no INTs), but that’s pretty standard for him at this time of year. The real star of the game, especially in the first half when the outcome was still in doubt, was Chris Hogan (9 catches, 180 yards, 2 TDs). Is it going too far to say he’s shaping up to be one the best unheralded free-agent signings of the Belichick era? I’m not even sure we need unheralded as the qualifier there.

8. We can believe in this defense now, right? Yes, the Steelers were handicapped greatly by losing dynamic running back Le’Veon Bell so early. But the Patriots — Malcolm Butler and the soon-to-be-filthy-rich Logan Ryan in particular — took Antonio Brown, the best receiver in the league, out of the game.

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9. Brown finished with 7 catches for 77 yards, and none of it mattered. They stopped the Steelers on fourth-and-goal in the fourth quarter, and held them to a field goal in a similar circumstance earlier in the game. As usual, they rarely missed a tackle. It could not have been more impressive.

10. The Falcons are an opponent to be reckoned with in Houston. But this defense didn’t just beat a good quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger — they systematically dismantled his offense. If you don’t believe in this unit now, stop dwelling on an alternate truth. They’re legit.

11. I have no idea what Brady’s “Jordan” audible means, but Patriots fans should be ready to call it their favorite. In the first quarter, it resulted in a shift that split out notorious deep threat Blount wide and ended with Brady throwing a dart to Hogan for 26 yards down the seam. That was the start of the huge night for Hogan.

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12. Hogan was star of the Patriots’ first touchdown drive, an 11-play, 80-yard hurry-up masterpiece that included a pair of third-down conversions. Including the 26-yarder, Hogan had four catches for 57 yards on the drive, and it was only appropriate that he caught the touchdown, a 16-yard strike in which Brady had enough time to wave and nod at each receiver while going through his progressions.

13. Hogan finished with seven catches for 117 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. I said it last week, so I might as well say it again: Thank goodness Hogan gave this football thing a try after exhausting his lacrosse eligibility in college. Actually, it turns out that he was the star of pretty much every drive. That was a Flipper Anderson game from him.

14. The Patriots are so methodical and disciplined with their offense that it feels like an extra gift on Christmas when Josh McDaniels digs a trick play out of the repertoire. They break them out at important times, too. Julian Edelman’s touchdown throw to Danny Amendola in the 2014 divisional round against the Ravens was a necessary blast, and the Brady-to-Dion Lewis-to-Brady-to-Hogan flea-flicker, which put the Patriots up 17-6, was just as enjoyable.

15. Brady’s throw could not have been more of a rope. That was one of those passes that reminded you to marvel at his accuracy and arm strength at the same time.

16. Underrated element of the flea-flicker: The collective roar at Gillette Stadium when everyone realizes in unison not only that the Patriots are going with a trick play — the moment Dion Lewis halted and flipped the ball back to Brady — but that it’s going to work.

17. That was Mike Mitchell in coverage on Hogan. But if you’d told me it was old friend Anthony Smith, I might have believed it — and Mr. Guaranteed Victory hasn’t played in the league since 2012.

18. The Patriots’ first drive was exhilarating in its execution but mildly frustrating in its outcome. Brady hit his first four passes — including a 41-yard catch-and-run by Julian Edelman in which he might have been a better-timed Hogan block from going the distance — to four different receivers. That took the Patriots all the way to the Pittsburgh 13 in less than 2 minutes, but Malcolm Mitchell had a third-and-1 throw slip through his hands.

19. The Patriots did the right thing and sent out Stephen Gostkowski for a 31-yard field goal. He drilled it, and it was encouraging to have an immediate lead.

20. Still, even though it was the reasonable and right tactical move, I kind of wished the Patriots had gone for it on fourth down. Had the Steelers stopped them, they would have still had lousy field position. Had the Patriots converted en route to a touchdown, it would have been a heck of a demoralizing start for Pittsburgh.

21. Gostkowski put the Patriots up 20-9 with a 47-yard boot to cap the Patriots’ first second-half possession. He missed an extra-point of his own late in the third quarter, but we’re well past those midseason fainting spells about his struggles, right?

22. The Steelers took a couple of downfield shots in their first two possessions, both times on third down and without any luck. Malcolm Butler nearly stole the pizza from Brown again on the second shot, on third-and-6 midway through the first quarter, but Brown logged off Facebook Live long enough to keep Butler from picking off the pass.

23. Actually, who wouldn’t mind a Facebook Live look at the Patriots’ postgame locker room celebration right about now?

24. Bell is the key to the Steelers’ offense, so it was a strange plot twist to see Pittsburgh put together its first scoring drive while he was on the sideline. Initially, Bell appeared to tweak his knee or ankle — CBS didn’t dedicate much immediate time to figuring out what happened — in the first quarter, bringing D’Angelo Williams into the game.

25. Williams is no slouch as a backup, having rushed for more than 900 yards and 11 touchdowns just last year, and he gave the Steelers a boost, picking up 25 yards on four carries on the drive, including a 5-yard touchdown run

26. If you’re a Patriots fan and you saw Bell standing on the sideline looking sullen in a giant jacket late in the game, there is no way you avoided a LaDainian Tomlinson flashback.

27. It felt like the Patriots dominated the first half, and the Steelers lost Bell along the way, so a 17-9 lead at halftime, while certainly welcome, was tighter than the game suggested it should be.

28. CBS public relations seemed to be trying to emphasize Jay Feely’s role as the kicking expert in the buildup to the game. Turns out Brady’s college pal turned out to be useful when Chris Boswell shanked his first extra-point attempt, keeping the score at 10-6. The kicking expert thing hasn’t quite caught on like the former official in the booth, though.

29. We’ll get more into this over the next two weeks, obviously, but everyone respects the Falcons, right? A week after eliminating Seattle — a team that is duly respected around here — they dropped the hammer on the Packers, 44-21, in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as that score suggests. A week earlier, the Packers had taken out the Cowboys, the top seed in the NFC.

30. The Falcons feature a top-10 all-time scoring offense and a defense that had Aaron Rodgers muttering under his breath before halftime. They are a force to be reckoned with.

31. Roethlisberger tried to involve Antonio Brown’s backup singers — receivers Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates — in the passing game in the first half, but without much beyond a couple of mistakes to show for it.

32. Rogers ended the night with the best statistics (7 catches, 66 yards). There’s a reason they’re not in the spotlight. They’re not good enough.

33. Vincent Valentine’s backfield stop on D’Angelo Williams late in the second quarter was straight out of a Richard Seymour highlight reel. What a burst.

34. That play came during a pivotal sequence, too. A Jesse James touchdown catch (no, not Eric Decker’s wife), which would have cut the Patriots lead to 17-13, was overruled upon replay. But with first and goal at the one, the Patriots stuffed Williams twice, then Roethlisberger failed to connect with one of the receivers who isn’t Antonio Brown, and they had to settle for 3.

35. Honestly, not a lot went Pittsburgh’s way. They lost Bell early. Boswell messed up an extra point. A possible fumble by Brady early in the third quarter remained in the Patriots’ possession. The fire alarm went off. There was a call here and there that could have gone against the Patriots defense backs in coverage but didn’t. But in the end, the superior team prevailed. Everything else is just noise.

36. Vengeance is near, Patriots fans. Vengeance is near. I cannot wait to see how Roger Goodell justifies going to Atlanta again in two weeks.

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