There was no disputing the excellence of Tom Brady again Sunday in the AFC Championship. (James Lang/USA Today Sports)

In a career of great games, Tom Brady puts up one of his best to reach 7th Super Bowl

Mike Petraglia
January 23, 2017 - 12:30 am

FOXBORO - The perfect Tom Brady returned at the perfect time Sunday.

Brady wasn't good in the AFC Championship at Gillette Stadium. He was brilliant, even by Brady standards. He completed 32-of-42 passes for 384 yards and three touchdowns. The Patriots steamrolled the Steelers, 36-17, on their way to a record ninth Super Bowl and Tom Terrific is headed to a seventh appearance in the biggest game on the planet.

The man who was banished from the NFL for four games to start this one-of-a-kind journey in September is now on the game's biggest stage once again. Brady overcame the personal turmoil of the first four weeks and the creeping doubts of his playoff performances against the Broncos last January in Denver and Houston last week to prove once again he is the premier quarterback in the NFL. Brady is advancing. Aaron Rodgers will be watching Feb. 5.

"That's because of the hard work of a lot of people from my coaches to my teammates to our families that support us," Brady said. "It takes a lot of people, a lot of hard work and a lot of effort over the course of many months. This didn't start at 6:40 [Sunday kickoff]. This thing started in April.

"It really started before that in free agency when we were picking up guys like [Chris] Hogan and drafting guys like Malcolm Mitchell and guys who were in rehab like LG [LeGarrette Blount] and D-Lew [Dion Lewis] and Dev [James Develin] and Nate [Solder]. It's a lot of hard work. There are only two teams left standing and I'm happy we're one of them. That's what our goal is and it's nice to be able to achieve that."

From the moment he raced onto the field to his own anthem, Jay-Z's "PSA" the Steelers were toast. Brady pumped his fist twice to the crowd in the southeast corner of Gillette Stadium as several Steelers players stretched for the game.

They must've seen the look in his face close up and said to themselves, "We're in trouble, deep trouble."

"Yeah, he's no joke man. We knew what it was when we came in here," Steelers safety Mike Mitchell said afterward. "We were expecting to play the best. We play Ben [Roethlisberger] every day [in practice] so were were expecting a high-caliber fist fight. It doesn't get any better than [No.] 12. He is what we thought he was. We've got to take our hats off to him. He's a great quarterback. That's a great offense. They had our number tonight."

Mitchell can certainly speak from first-person experience Sunday. It was Mitchell that Chris Hogan left in his wake on his way to a 35-yard touchdown in the second quarter on a perfectly-executed and immaculately thrown flea-flicker pass from Brady.

"It's a good play," Mitchell said. "We hadn't seen it. We were expecting some type of trick plays, some type of like screen-and-go's and whatnot. The flea-flicker was a really good play by them."

"Yeah, he ripped us apart," Steeler defensive end Stephon Tuitt lamented after. "We didn't get there and he picked us apart."

That's nothing new, Stephon. Brady is now 5-0 lifetime against the Steelers at Gillette Stadium. In those five games, Brady is 141-for-196 (72 percent) for 1,797 yards (359.4 average), with 18 touchdowns and not a single interception.

On a night when the Patriots quarterback was set to make history as the first quarterback to reach a seventh Super Bowl, he was nearly perfect.

"I think Tom did pretty well. He did OK," Martellus Bennett joked, trying desperately to deadpan. "Tom did what Tom does. He's fired up and laser-focused. All the guys just came through for him to make plays when we had the opportunities."

"Tom did a good job of finding open guys," Bill Belichick said. "The whole offense played well. We had good execution, good protection, good spacing in the routes, a lot of good running after the catch, good throwing, good catching. Yeah, it was good offensive production."

The only time Brady was caught off guard was right before the opening kick, when the Patriots won the toss and decided to actually receive to start the game. Belichick must've known Brady was ready and he wanted his quarterback on the field right away. But Brady, who directed a field goal drive to begin the game, was surprised.

"I'm not sure, that surprised me too," Brady acknowledged. "I was sitting there saying, ‘We won the toss, great.' I was going to sit down and he goes, we got the ball, and I'm like, ‘What? I thought we won the toss.' I wasn't sure how that all worked."  

Hogan set a new franchise playoff record with 180 yards on nine catches while Julian Edelman added eight catches for 118 yards. Those two receivers had record-setting games because their quarterback was on fire, starting with the midweek stare-down of the national media on Wednesday. Even LeGarrette Blount was in awe of a quarterback he sees everyday in practice.

"He's the best quarterback to ever play the game," Blount said after he chipped in with a monster, pile-dragging run of his own followed by a one-yard touchdown in the third quarter. "He's obviously, in my opinion, the best quarterback to ever play the game."

The chants of "Where is Roger?" must've made Brady smile. Oh wait, Brady says he didn't hear them but he did hear the crowd serenade him to "Living on a Prayer" by Bon Jovi, who just so happened to be right behind him up in the suite with Brady's best tight end buddy, Rob Gronkowski.

"I didn't hear that chant," Brady insisted afterward. "I did hear them singing to Bon Jovi though, that was pretty cool."

Thanks to one of the best games of his glorious career, he'll finally get the chance to meet Roger Goodell in Houston, that is, with one more win over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI in Houston on Feb. 5.

"It hasn't sunk in yet. Every week it's kind of been one day at a time and one game at a time. I haven't even said those words yet," Brady said of realizing he's off to the Super Bowl again. Well, I said them after the game, but not at all this week or now. It's unbelievable. It's unbelievable."

Brady was truly the one who was unbelievable Sunday. Now, it's the Falcons who can start worrying about trying to slow down Brady on the fast track of NRG Stadium. 

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