When the Patriots ran:
This was about the only thing that didn't go well for the Patriots all night. Pittsburgh defensive front completely dominated the Patriots offensive line on virtually every running play, limiting New England to a dismal 2.1-yards per carry on 27 attempts. What made this lack of production even more stunning was the game plan, which saw Tom Brady open up the game by shredding the Steelers through the air. Even after that success the Patriots weren't able to muster anything on the ground. LeGarrette Blount got the bulk of the carries, most coming in the second half, but managed only 47 yards on 16 carries for a 2.9-yard average, and that included an 18-yard run. Dion Lewis was even worse, picking up 11 yards on six attempts for a 1.8-yard average. The Patriots simply couldn't prevent Pittsburgh from getting penetration, which caused several negative runs, and the ground game was shut down as a result.
When the Patriots passed:
All of the above didn't matter because Brady completely dismantled the Steelers secondary yet again, carving it up to the tune of 384 yards and the three touchdowns. The former broke his own Patriots postseason record while the latter tied him with Joe Montana for the most three-touchdown playoff games in NFL history with nine. Pittsburgh's zones were confused all night, especially when Chris Hogan was involved. The free agent wideout turned in a career game with nine catches for 180 yards, setting his own team record in the process. But many times he was simply uncovered, which led to both of his touchdowns (from 16 and 34 yards) as well as gains of 22 and 39 yards. Hogan appeared to be dealing with some effects of a thigh injury as well, otherwise his damage might have been even greater. Julian Edelman also found his share of room, finishing with eight grabs for 118 yards and a touchdown. That pair accounted for 17 of Brady's 32 completions and 298 of his 384 yards as well as all three touchdowns. Brady was comfortable in the pocket (he was sacked twice but otherwise had more than adequate protection) and once again showed why he's the greatest the game has ever seen.
When the Steelers ran:
This was a huge key in the game as Le'Veon Bell, the Steelers red-hot running back, was injured on his second carry of the night. That attempt, which went for 6 yards, saw him limp back to the huddle with a sore left groin. He remained in the game for a bit but went to the bench after just five carries for 18 yards and DeAngelo Williams replaced him in the first quarter. Williams offered an initial burst with runs of 15, 4 and 5 yards, the latter for a touchdown, but he, too, was held in check. Bell tried to make a go of it to start the second half but limped back to the sideline for good after a 2-yard run and finished with six carries for 20 yards. Williams slowed considerably after the hot start and wound up with 34 yards on 14 attempts for a 2.4-yard average. Combined the two finished with 54 yards on 20 attempts for just 2.7-yards a pop. Once again Alan Branch was outstanding up front, two-gapping the Steelers effectively throughout the first half. Rookie Vincent Valentine had a huge play on the goal line when he shot through a gap to drop Williams for a 3-yard loss on a second-and-goal play from the 2. That followed a Patrick Chung stop for a 1-yard loss during a key sequence where the defense forced a field goal late in the first half. Bell's injury was huge but the Patriots front was ready for the challenge.
When the Steelers passed:
Ben Roethlisberger had some chances to make plays but either his passes were slightly off target or his receivers let him down. Both of those descriptions were accurate on Pittsburgh's first drive of the game when Sammie Coates ran past Eric Rowe but Roethlisberger's pass was slightly underthrown and yet still should have been caught but Coates dropped it. Cobi Hamilton also had opportunities to make plays but couldn't, and Darrius Heyward-Bey was behind Rowe in the end zone but saw the pass sail over his head. After Bell went out, Antonio Brown saw plenty of double coverage but still managed to catch seven balls for 77 yards while slot receiver Eli Rogers had a solid start with seven catches for 66 yards. Rogers' night turned sour, however, when Kyle Van Noy stripped him after a catch in the third quarter, leading to a Patriots touchdown that put the game away. The secondary competed hard and as usual tackled extremely well, limiting the yards after catch the Steelers receivers thrive on. Roethlisberger completed 31 of 47 passes for 314 yards with a touchdown and an interception, but those numbers could have been better with some better execution.
The kicking game was really a non-factor as both sides missed PATs and neither team made any game-changing plays in the return game. Ryan Allen wasn't used much but averaged 48.5 yards on his two punts while Jordan Berry struggled early. He had a 36-yarder roll out of bounds at the Patriots 33 on his first kick, then sent a 44-yarder into the end zone on his next attempt. However, he rebounded with a pair of plus-50 punts that were fair caught at the 16 and 12, respectively. Coates had a nice 31-yard kickoff return to open the second half but otherwise neither side made an impact in the return game. Gostkowski went 3-for-3 on field goals, connecting from 31, 47 and 36 yards before pushing his final PAT to the right. Chris Boswell missed his PAT early before hitting a 24-yard field goal late in the first half. Quiet night on special teams all around.