The New England Patriots take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, January 22, 2017.
Bill Belichick and the Patriots advanced to an NFL-record ninth title game, punching their ticket to Houston for Super Bowl LI with the 36-17 victory over the Steelers at Gillette Stadium.
Tom Brady –Coming off a shaky performance with a 68.6 rating in the win over Houston, the theory was that Brady wouldn't have two bad games in a row. The theory was dead on. Brady came out firing and completing throw against Pittsburgh like he's done so many times in the past. Brady completed 32 of 42 passes for a New England franchise record 384 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 127.5 rating. It was vintage Brady, his third career AFC title win over Pittsburgh. In his last seven games against the Steelers Brady has 22 touchdowns and no interceptions. Wow. He's on his way to a record seventh Super Bowl.
Chris Hogan – A week after limping off with a thigh injury while catching four passes for 95 yards against Houston, Hogan was back to business against Pittsburgh. The first-year Patriot was wide open for his first career playoff score, a 16-yard touchdown in the first quarter. In the second quarter he had a key 22-yard sideline grab, again wide open, on third down to keep a drive rolling that would end seconds later with his 34-yard touchdown on a flea-flicker. It was Hogan's first career multi-touchdown game with his first career postseason touchdowns. He finished the win with a Patriots franchise-record 180 yards on eight catches. Hogan kicked butt, showing limited limitations from his thigh injury.
Julian Edelman –Edelman has been the key cog in the passing attack for weeks and continued to be just that against the Steelers. The tough slot machine had a nice 41-yard catch-and-run early on the second play of the night. He added a touchdown from 10 yards out in the third quarter. Edelman finished with eight catches for 118 yards, an impressive 14.8-yard average.
Goal-line defense – New England's defense got the job done for the most part on the way to victory. It was especially impressive on goal line stands. A review voided a Pittsburgh touchdown late in the second quarter and New England stopped the Steelers three times from the 1 to force a field goal to keep the score at 17-9 at halftime. The unit then closed the door on any comeback hopes with four stops from inside the 6 in the fourth quarter to keep the lead at 33-9. The New England defense proved its worth yet again this season.
Logan Ryan/Eric Rowe –* *Ryan wasn't bad on the whole, but did struggle a bit with Eli Rogers crossing the field in the first half. Rowe was the bigger issue, allowing both Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton to get behind him in the end zone, though both dropped would-be touchdowns. On a night when the bulk of the defense did the job against a talented offense, the pass coverage had a few holes. Even with Rowe stealing a late in interception on a deep ball it was a tough night for one of the team's top-three cornerbacks.
Running game –Aside from one 18-yard run by LeGarrette Blount to set up his own 1-yard score, New England's rushing attack did virtually nothing against Pittsburgh. While it wasn't really needed given the huge production in the passing game, the Patriots ran it 27 times for just 57 yards (2.1 avg.) and the one score. Dion Lewis (six carries for just 11 yards) has now been held well below 4 yards per carry in two postseason games, losing some of the momentum he'd picked up down the stretch in the regular season.
Malcolm Mitchell –The good news is that the rookie receiver returned after missing a couple weeks to a knee injury. The bad news is that a Brady throw deflected off Mitchell's hands in the red zone on the opening drive, nearly resulting in an interception and forcing an early field goal. Mitchel had another sideline throw that he probably should have been able to get his feet in bounds but did not. He finished just one catch for 5 yards on his return, replacing Michael Floyd on the 46-man roster a week after the veteran had a similar deflected pass lead to an interception against the Texans.
Joe Thuney –The rookie guard was tossed to the side with scary ease early on by rookie Steelers defensive tackle Javon Hargrave for a sack of Brady. Things improved from there, though Thuney and the rest of the line were never able to open up much room for the running backs to run. Really, though, the pure optics of Thuney getting rag-dolled by Hargrave earns him a spot here.
Malcolm Butler – It wasn't perfect and wasn't true man coverage all night, but Butler was part of an at times zone-heavy scheme that kept Antonio Brown from finding much room to work. Still, Butler was the primary defender on Brown, who had seven catches for just 77 yards, with no play longer than 18 yards. Butler was part of a secondary that held each of the Steelers top four pass catchers to 11 yards per reception or less.
Stephen Gostkowski – It was headed for a perfect night for the kicker until he missed a PAT wide right in the third quarter. Still, Gostkowski nailed his three field goals (31, 47, 26) and three PATs. He also did a solid job on kickoffs – both short and into the end zone for touchbacks.
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