Patriots outpace Steelers in AFC Championship Game romp

Lorenzo Reyes
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New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates after a touchdown by running back LeGarrette Blount (not pictured) against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the third quarter in the 2017 AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Fireworks cracked overhead. Tom Brady slipped on an oversized parka the Internet made fun of and sat on the bench, doling out all the fist bumps that came his way. The fans here, as the Jumbotron showed recording artist Jon Bon Jovi dancing in owner Robert Kraft’s suite, belted out Livin’ On A Prayer.

This was all during a TV timeout with 2:44 still left to play in the third quarter, but by this point, they were merely waiting on formalities.

The New England Patriots were on their way to the seventh Super Bowl of the Brady-Bill Belichick era.

The Patriots thumped the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday night in the AFC Championship Game 36-17 to secure their date in Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons on Feb. 5 in Houston. It will be New England’s NFL-record ninth trip to the title game.

Brady carved apart Pittsburgh’s secondary, throwing for a postseason career-high 384 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. This marked Brady’s ninth postseason game with at least three passing touchdowns, tying Joe Montana for most in NFL history.

The Steelers could not generate a pass rush, and New England’s offensive line gave Brady ample time to throw.

During New England’s first touchdown of the game – a 16-yard dart to receiver Chris Hogan in the back of the end zone – Brady bounced around the pocket long enough for him to scan the field, go through his progressions, and find a wide-open Hogan, who had slipped past Pittsburgh’s zone. After that, it didn’t get much better for Pittsburgh.

The Steelers stuck with a defensive strategy predicated on playing zone coverage. They also rushed three defenders for a good chunk of the game. This put pressure on the secondary to hold their assignments for long periods of time and forced them to make plays. They didn’t.

Hogan was left uncovered on several big plays. He caught nine passes for 180 yards, a Patriots postseason record, and two touchdowns. Fellow receiver Julian Edelman caught eight passes for 118 yards and added another score.

The Patriots exploited the scheme, and skewed their attack heavily toward the pass. Through three quarters – the point at which the game was pretty much wrapped up – the Patriots had run the ball only 16 times for 31 yards. That compared to Brady’s 36 passing attempts during the same period.

The Steelers were without star running back Le’Veon Bell for most of the game, as he sustained a left groin injury late in the first quarter and was determined to be questionable to return. He did come back, for one carry in the second quarter, but left the game immediately after.

Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes.

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