FOXBOROUGH –This entire season felt like a do-over. In so many ways, New England was trying to rectify its mistakes from 2015, in order to get back to the spot where their season ended a year ago: the AFC Championship Game.
The Patriots have been to this title contest 13 times now, but last year's failure left quite a bad aftertaste. They even went so far as to take the ball after winning the coin toss – something they almost never do – just as they did last January in Denver, determined to do better than the first-series punt they could only manage a year ago.
Tom Brady came out throwing and before the smoke from the pregame pyrotechnics had cleared Gillette Stadium, the QB had his team knocking at the door of Pittsburgh's end zone. Were it not for a dropped pass inside the 5-yard line by rookie WR Malcolm Mitchell, the Patriots might've had an opening drive touchdown. Instead, they settled for a short Stephen Gostkowski field goal.
When the Steelers took over, New England's defense rose to the occasion early, thwarting Pittsburgh's offense on a pair of third-downs to force punts. Brady got the ball back on the third possession and quickly drove the team with a series of big passes mixed in with Dion Lewis runs. Pittsburgh somehow left WR Chris Hogan wide open in the back of the end zone at the end of the drive and Brady found him to put New England up 10-0 after one quarter.
Pittsburgh and QB Ben Roethlisberger responded with a nice, sustained drive that resulted in a short touchdown run by backup RB DeAngelo Williams, in for the injured Le'Veon Bell, who suffered a groin problem earlier. But kicker Chris Boswell, who booted the Steelers into the game a week earlier with six field goals, failed to convert the extra point.
On the ensuing Patriots possession, the Steelers again left Hogan all alone, this time on the sideline on a 3rd-and-8 to extend the drive. Very next play, Brady handed to Lewis, who tossed it back to him for a flea-flicker that Brady dropped right into Hogan's lap to up the score to 17-6 halfway through the second quarter – a play that may come to define this historic win.
"It's just something we've been working on," Hogan said matter-of-factly after the fact. "We've been waiting for the opportunity to use it. We called it and everyone nailed it. Great play.
"We had a good game plan, and they played zone [defense]. After we knew what they were doing, Josh [McDaniels, the offensive coordinator] was calling good plays and Tom was able to find me."
It looked like Pittsburgh connected on a counterpunch when the Steelers got the ball back, but a replay review showed that TE Jesse James was stopped inches short of the goal line. New England's rush defense dropped Pittsburgh for consecutive losses on rushing attempts with Williams, then forced a field goal. The Patriots were in control, halfway to Houston with a 17-9 lead and momentum heading into intermission.
"It was big for us," DE Chris Long said of that defensive stand. "It kept it a two-score ball game so it was a momentum swing and from there we really didn't look back."
New England's defense held Roethlisberger and his Bell-less offense to a three-and-out to start the second half. After a contested QB sneak that Brady appeared to lose on the ensuing drive, New England continued to march down the field and put points on the board.
The third quarter was when Brady and the Patriots put the game away. He continued to find open receivers – none more so than Hogan, who set a new Patriots record for postseason receiving yards with 180 – and Julian Edelman, who pitched in with 118 and a score, while RB LeGarrette Blount added another touchdown on the ground.
"Both teams are tough. At any moment, they can strike," Blount remarked about the Steelers. "We just had to make sure we kept piling it on. Everybody gets their shot to score points. We just took advantage of most of our chances more than they did. Now, ultimately, we're going to the Super Bowl and they're going home."
Roethlisberger and his offense never quite found a rhythm Sunday night. His throws were often behind his receivers or too far out in front of them. Bell was a non-factor after his injury, and though Williams played admirably in relief, he was never really a threat.
New England made good on its mulligan. They'll now appear in their NFL record ninth Super Bowl and seem hell-bent on coming home from Houston with a fifth Vince Lombardi trophy.
"Honestly, over the years I never really felt like the Super Bowl was a possibility," TE Martellus Bennett told reporters. He's in his first season with New England and experiencing the Super Bowl for the first time.
"That's one of your goals. I was talking to my wife this morning. I'm like, 'I don't really know how to feel about going into this game.' I always dreamed about going to the Super Bowl but it never really felt like an attainable goal in the past because we lost so many games and we were never really in position. You're just hopeful to go to the playoffs. So this is very special—it's a dream come true."
"Yup, one more," Edelman remarked. "I mean, I'm not going to take this light. This is an unbelievable feeling, but we've got our hands full [with the Falcons]. They're playing lights-out right now. There's still more meat on the bone.
"This is what you fight for, what you train for, what you get hurt for, what you get yelled at for, prepare for, and go through the ebbs and flows of a season."
"I'm excited as hell," declared defensive end Chris Long, who'll be among several Patriots playing in their first Super Bowl. "I think it's sunk in… I think it means a little something different to everybody, but we're all in it together. We've all earned this right to play one more game. This is awesome, but it doesn't mean as much if we don't play our best football two weeks from now."
"They're a good team," cornerback Malcolm Butler said of Atlanta, "but right now, we're just enjoying the moment."
As they should.