The Patriots are going back to the mother ship. Yes, folks, that’s right the Pats are heading to Houston for Super Bowl LI after thrashing the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17 on Sunday night in Foxboro. They did it by playing great defense in the red zone and in goal-line situations and by riding the arm once again of Tom Brady.
Brady did what he’s done so many times before to the Pittsburgh defense. He eviscerated them to the tune of 32-42 for 384 yards with 3 TDs and zero INTs for a passer rating of 127.5. Pinch us if we’ve seen this scene before. Against Mike Tomlin-coached Steelers teams, Brady has now thrown 22 TDs and 0 INTs.
Brady hit Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman on the perimeter all night long torching the Steelers secondary again and again. Combined, the two had 17 catches for 298 yards and three touchdowns. Pittsburgh had no answer.
With the win the Patriots will be playing in their ninth Super Bowl, most in NFL history. And Tom Brady and the Pats will be playing in their seventh Super Bowl in the past 16 seasons. That is a ridiculous number and when people talk about dynastic eras in the sport, keep in mind this was done in a salary cap era where the league wants to push its parity.
So, the Patriots will be facing off against the Atlanta Falcons, who like NE, won in a rout as Matt Ryan picked the Green Bay defense apart in 44-21 curb stomping. But there is and will be plenty of time to talk about that matchup. Tonight is about the AFC Championship Game and this team’s place in the franchise’s history.
Other observations from tonight include:
Chris Hogan WAS a pretty good signing: Back in the spring, we were singing the praises of Hogan and the decision of Bill Belichick to sign him away from Buffalo. But the news, like many of the Patriots free agent signings, was met with a lot of ho-hum type of reactions. After all, when Bills GM Doug Whaley listed the players that should compete for the open Bills #2 WR slot, he didn’t even include Hogan, who was a restricted free agent.
Well after a solid first season in Foxboro where he was the #2 WR in the NFL in terms of average yards per reception, Hogan made his presence felt. Against the Steelers, he set a Patriots postseason record with 180 yards on 9 catches and 2 TDs. He narrowly missed a third score when a Brady pass glanced off his hands in the end zone in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots used him in the slot a lot like they did with Rob Gronkowski against Pittsburgh and the results were remarkably similar. Although the two have vastly different skill sets, Hogan used his speed to find open spots in the zone and then blew past the defense for a long touchdown flea flicker from Brady.
How Will the Play of the Defense be Minimalized Now? The Patriots defense has transformed itself since the midway point of the season. And nothing they did in the second half of 2016 got any credit for the way they played individually and the scheme by Matt Patricia and Bill Belichick. All we heard was “they haven’t played a good QB”…ad nauseam.
This unit was the top defense in the NFL in terms of points allowed, giving up just 15.6 points per game, and 12.9 during the second half of the season. “Pittsburgh is the test with their big play WRs and Bell” was the rallying cry heard all week. Well, what’s going to be the excuse now?
The Patriots defense held Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers to just nine points until a garbage time TD with about 3 minutes left when they were playing soft upped their total to 17. It was also the least amount of points the Steelers scored during their nine-game winning streak. Remember when NE beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh 27-16? “But that was with Landry Jones!” the naysayers said. “Wait until they face Big Ben.”
The defense gave up just 17 points and held Pittsburgh to just 1 score in trips to the red zone (part of our keys) and 0-2 in goal line possessions. For a team that prides itself on their toughness and physicality, the Patriots punched them in the mouth and showed they were the more physical team tonight.
Belichick and Patricia Changed Things Up Perfectly: Early in the game, the Pats were playing man coverage with safety help over the top for Antonio Brown. After La’Veon Bell went down with a groin injury, they changed it to a zone scheme on the fly and without the bigger threat of Bell in the running game, the focus was to keep the play in front of them and make the Steelers earn their scores by slowly making their way down the field.
While Roethlisberger ended up with 314 yards, the Patriots kept them out of the end zone with some tough play in the red zone. Brown wasn’t a big factor catching seven catches for 77 yards and Bell had just 20 yards on six carries before exiting. De Angelo Williams, who had torched New England a year ago, had just 34 yards on 14 carries. Pittsburgh as a team ran for just 54 yards on 20 carries, a 2.7-yard average.
In our keys to the game, we wrote about the disparity between Roethlisberger’s passer rating at home and on the road. At home, it was a stellar 116.7 and on the road, it was just 78.4. The Patriots held him to just an 83.1 passer rating for the game. So yes they CAN stop an elite QB.
Drive of the Game: With the Patriots holding a 10-6 lead in the first half, the Steelers were in the position to stop New England and possibly take the lead. The Patriots went 82 yards in nine plays to increase their lead to 17-6 and never look back.
Some of the key plays to keep the drive alive were the 12-yard pass from Brady to Julian Edelman on 3rd and 10. Then facing a 3rd and 8 at the NE 44-yard line, Brady hit Chris Hogan for 22 yards, which set them up at the Pittsburgh 34-yard line.
That led to the scoring play a 34-yard flea flicker where Brady handed off to Dion Lewis who pitched it back to Brady and he found Hogan for a much-too-easy scoring pass where he blew by the defenders who were rushing up in run support.
The Patriots had answered the Steelers scoring drive with a big one of their own and any hope that the defense had of stopping New England went out the window.
Josh McDaniels Deserves a Lot of Credit for this One: After a sloppy and less than ideal Divisional game where the offense never really seemed to get into a rhythm, this game was supposed to be a much different test. The Steelers defense had been playing much better in the second half of the season and was supposed to give a much bigger test than the unit did earlier in the year.
While Houston moved its edge players inside to get to Tom Brady, Pittsburgh wasn’t going to do that. They are a “we do what we do” type of defense. Edge rushers James Harrison and Bud Dupree stayed on the edge and weren’t big factors in the pass rush.
McDaniels recognized where the weak spots in the zone coverage were and the Patriots exploited them. Brady and McDaniels saw tendencies and were on the same page where Brady audibled and took advantage of the matchups.
Hogan 9 catches for 180 yards and 2 TDs, and Julian Edelman 8 catches for 118 yards and a score were unstoppable all night long and the running backs, where we thought would be matchup problems for Pittsburgh never materialized.
We’re on to Houston…
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary
Tags: 2016 AFC Championship Game 2016 NFL Season 2016 Patriots season Antonio Brown Ben Roethlisberger Bill Belichick Chris Hogan Danny Amendola Dion Lewis Dont'a Hightower Jabaal Sheard Julian Edelman LaGarrette Blount Le'Veon Bell Malcolm Butler Martellus Bennett Mike Tomlin New England Patriots NFL Pittsburgh Steelers Tom Brady