From start to finish the Patriots were in complete control and ultimately cruised to a 36-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers to capture the AFC Championship for the ninth time in history.
Here are some random thoughts from tonight's victory.
Hogan's the hero – The Patriots entered the game looking for another receiver to serve as a complement to lead dog Julian Edelman, and the certainly got it. Chris Hogan was nursing a sore thigh all week but turned in the game of his life, racking up 180 yards on nine catches. The 180 yards represent a new Patriots single-game postseason record, eclipsing the 153 piled up by Deion Branch in a loss in Denver in the 2005 divisional round. The Steelers secondary experienced several breakdowns trying to deal with the Patriots receivers and Hogan in particular seemed to benefit. Pittsburgh's defensive backs lost track of him on a number of occasions and Hogan made them pay. He had touchdown receptions of 16 and 34 yards, the former on a play where he went completely uncovered and the latter on a flea-flicker that caught safety Mike Mitchell out of position. He also had a 39-yard catch and more than ably filled the role of complementary receiver to Edelman. The one negative may be health as the thigh appeared to be an occasional problem and he was roughed up a bit late after dropping a ball in the end zone.
Tom Terrific – There aren't a lot of superlatives that haven't already been said about Tom Brady but he was at his absolute best in the AFC Championship Game. He completed 32 of 42 for 384 yards and three touchdowns for a passer rating of 127.5. Julian Edelman was a huge part of that production, grabbing eight catches for 118 yards and a touchdown. The 384 yards for Brady established a new Patriots single-game postseason record, topping his previous best of 367 he threw for in the divisional round win over Baltimore two years ago. The victory advanced the Patriots to the Super Bowl for the ninth time in team history, which moved them ahead of Denver, Dallas and Pittsburgh for the most all-time. Individually, Brady will play in his seventh Super Bowl of his career, one more than Mike Lodish for the most for a player in history.
Pulling out all stops – There was a huge sequence at the end of the first half when the Steelers thought they had a touchdown only to be turned back. Jesse James caught an 18-yard pass that was originally ruled a touchdown but replays showed he was down at the 1. Pittsburgh could have benefitted from the ruling since it was the play after the two-minute warning and the Steelers had a chance to run more clock rather than give the Patriots a chance for a late drive. Instead the Patriots defense came up huge. DeAngelo Williams was stopped on consecutive carries for losses of 1 and 3 to create third-and-goal from the 5. Ben Roethlisberger's pass to Eli Rogers fell incomplete and the Steelers had to settle for a field goal and went to the locker room trailing 17-9.
On call – While the aforementioned sequence was playing out, Bill Belichick was on top of his game and used his timeouts efficiently. After the replay overturned the original call, Belichick used his first timeout with 1:43 left. Had he not done so, Pittsburgh could have let 24 seconds off the clock before snapping it on first-and-goal from the 1. He used another at the 1:50 mark and again at 1:47 following the two failed runs. When Chris Boswell connected on his 24-yard field goal the Patriots got the ball back with 1:39 left. Even though the Patriots weren't able to move, Belichick gave his team an extra opportunity.
Change of pace – Belichick made a change to his normal course of action at the start of the game and opted to take the ball after winning the opening coin toss. He normally chooses to defer his option to the second half in such cases, but occasional he goes against the grain. The Patriots opened the game by driving 62 yards for a Stephen Gostkowski field goal, which was clearly the idea Belichick had in mind. The Patriots immediately seized the lead and never relinquished it. "We took the ball because we thought that was the right thing to do," Belichick said. The last time he chose to take the ball was in last year's AFC title game in Denver, but the offense was forced to punt and didn't force the Broncos to chase the way the Steelers did.
Kicking it – Stephen Gostkowski booted three field goals, the first of which moved him past Adam Vinatieri for the most in Patriots postseason history. He now has 29 successful field goals in the playoffs, although he did push one of his PATs wide to the right. Gostkowski also varied his kickoffs throughout the night, recording three touchbacks while also allowing three returns. Sammie Coates nearly broke the opening kickoff of the second half before being nudged out of bounds after a 31-yard run back.
Rotating basis – Linebacker Dont'a Hightower was rotated in and out of the lineup periodically, sitting out the second series after getting the start alongside Elandon Roberts. Hightower was listed as questionable with the shoulder injury coming into the game, although it is unclear if health was the reason for his sporadic play. He finished with three tackles on the night despite the reduction in playing time. The Patriots defense employed a lot of three-safety looks with Duron McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung.
Match game – Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan appeared to open the game in man coverage with Butler taking Antonio Brown and Ryan locked up with Rogers. That seemed to change after Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell was injured and left the game late in the first quarter. At that point the Patriots secondary changed to more zone looks with Brown seeing predominantly double coverage. Despite some bumps along the way, particularly when Rogers seemed to get the better of Ryan early (he finished with seven catches for 66 yards), the changes worked to perfection.
Cover up – One possible problem moving forward in the matchup with Atlanta could be the play of the third cornerback. Eric Rowe's statistics after the Steelers win will look fine, but in reality he was quite fortunate. On the first third down of the game Roethlisberger looked deep for Coates, who had a step on Rowe, but the pass deflected off the receiver's hands. Rowe also allowed Cobi Hamilton to get behind him on a couple of occasions, and later Darrius Heyward-Bey raced past him only to see the pass overthrown. Late in the game Hamilton again beat Rowe and this time he hauled in a 30-yard touchdown pass. While Roethlisberger's errant passes allowed the Patriots to get away with some shaky coverage, Rowe's technique appears to need some work.
Extra points – The Patriots advanced to their eight Super Bowl under the ownership of Robert Kraft, one more than Denver's Pat Bowlen for the most for any owner in NFL history. … It will be Belichick's seventh trip to the big dance as well, moving him into the top spot ahead of Don Shula. … Brady improved to 24-9 all-time in the playoffs, adding to his NFL-best total. He also recorded his 11th 300-yard passing game in the playoffs, extending another record. … Edelman's 100-yard game was the fourth of his postseason career, tying him with Branch for the most in Patriots history. … The game marked the ninth time Brady has thrown three or more touchdowns in a playoff game, tying him with Joe Montana for the most in NFL postseason history.