Chris Hogan (15) catches a touchdown pass during the second quarter against Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell (23) in the 2017 AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. (Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports)
FOXBORO — Another AFC championship win, another re-writing of the NFL record book for the Patriots.
Chris Hogan caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns while Tom Brady managed another perfect game against the Steelers, as the Patriots routed Pittsburgh, 36-17, Sunday night at Gillette Stadium to advance to play the Atlanta Falcons on Feb. 5 in Super Bowl LI in Houston.
In one of his best playoff performances, Brady finished 32-of-42 for a franchise-record 384 yards and three touchdowns and a 127.5 quarterback rating. Since 2007, Tom Brady has 22 touchdowns passes and no interceptions in seven games against Pittsburgh.
The Patriots become the first team in NFL history to appear in nine Super Bowls, eclipsing the eight by the Steelers, Broncos and Cowboys.
Hogan’s 180 yards is a new franchise playoff record while Julian Edelman passed Deion Branch for the most all-time receiving yards in franchise playoff history. Edelman caught eight passes for 118 yards, giving him his fourth career 100-yard receiving game, matching Branch for most in franchise history.
By the time the rout was on late in the third quarter, the sellout Gillette Stadium crowd broke into chants of “Roger, Roger, Roger” after former quarterback and team broadcaster Scott Zolak held up a sign in the booth asking “Where is Roger?” That chorus was repeated time and time again in the fourth quarter. The other star who led the crowd into a frenzy was Jon Bon Jovi, who greeted Bill Belichick with a hug and a kiss on the cheek in pregame. Bon Jovi conducted the crowd as they sang “Living on a Prayer” after a LeGarrette Blount touchdown.
In a game between two high-scoring offenses, it was a crucial goal-line stand in the first half that proved to be the game’s pivotal point. Dont’a Hightower and rookie Vincent Valentine made huge stops on DeAngelo Williams after a touchdown was overturned by replay.
With Tedy Bruschi out for the coin toss as honorary captain for the ninth time, Ben Roethlisberger called tails and it came up heads. As was the case with the AFC championship in Denver in Jan. 2016, when the Patriots elected to receive, the Patriots elected to receive and early on, it was clear why.
Brady came out in a hurry-up offense, throwing over the middle to Martellus Bennett and then finding Julian Edelman on a crossing pattern. The Patriots worked the ball down to the Steelers 13 before settling for a 31-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal. Brady targeted Malcolm Mitchell on third-and-1. The ball went through his hands and was nearly picked off at the Steelers 5.
The Steelers had third-and-1 at its 31 and instead of giving to Le’Veon Bell for the yard, Roethlisberger went for the downs, throwing deep down the left sideline for Sammie Coates. Eric Rowe was in position to break it up at the last moment.
Brady scrambled to his left on third-and-6 and found a wide open Chris Hogan in the back of the end zone on a blown coverage in the Steelers secondary. The 16-yard toss capped an effective 11-play, 80-yard drive, during which the Patriots converted all three down chances. Hogan had four catches for 58 yards on the drive. The score put the Patriots up, 10-0, with 2:47 left in the first quarter.
With Le’Veon Bell out on the sidelines running in place and apparently trying to loosen up his legs following a left groin strain, the Steelers opened the second quarter by marching down the field and into the red zone with plays from Bell’s backup DeAngelo Williams, Antonio Brown and Eli Rogers.
The drive was capped off when Hall ran up the middle for a five-yard TD. In shades of the 2016 AFC championship, when Stephen Gostkowski missed the extra point following New England’s first touchdown, Chris Boswell pulled the extra point wide left and it was 10-6 Patriots.
The Patriots answered right back. A key play was a third-and-8 conversion after LeGarrette Blount was nailed for a 2-yard loss. Brady hit Hogan for 22 yards on the left sideline. On the next play, Brady handed to Dion Lewis, who ran to the line before turning around a tossing the ball back to Brady. Brady then easily lofted the ball to Hogan, who got behind Steelers safety Mike Mitchell and the secondary for an easy 35-yard touchdown score. It was Hogan’s seventh catch on eight targets for 117 yards in the first 25 minutes of the game.
The Steelers responded by marching down the field. Bell returned for the first play of the drive, taking a handoff and rushing just three yards before trotting gingerly off the field. The rest of the drive featured DeAngelo Williams, Antonio Brown and Jesse James. But it was drop in the back of the end zone that proved costly as Cobi Hamilton got behind Eric Rowe but dropped a pass. But on the next play, Roethlisberger found Jesse James in the right flat. But it was Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon making the stop on a play that was initially called a touchdown. After review, the ball was placed at the six-inch line.
The Patriots stiffened. Dont’a Hightower got to Williams for a one-yard loss on first down. Vincent Valentine pegged Williams for a three-yard loss and Roethlisberger threw incomplete on third down, forcing the Steelers to settle for a 23-yard field goal.
The Patriots took a 17-9 lead to the locker room for halftime.
Tom Brady had his ninth career playoff game of at least 3 TD passes, tying him with Joe Montana for most all time.
[For a full box score and stats, click here.]
Nate Ebner was not spotted on the field to start the second half. He was later ruled out by the Patriots with a head injury.
The Patriots forced a three-and-out by the Steelers to open the second half when Logan Ryan broke up a pass over the middle intended for Eli Rogers.
The Patriots used a quarterback sneak from Tom Brady on third-and-1 to extend a drive that ended on a 47-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal, putting the Patriots up, 20-9, with 9:59 left in the third.
The Patriots built their lead to 27-9 on an impressive 88-yard drive. The drive featured a 39-yard pass completion over the middle to Hogan followed by a super-human run of 15 yards to the Steelers 1 by Blount. The Patriots dragged five Steelers five yards down to the shadow of the goal line. On the next play, he was rewarded with his eighth postseason touchdown run, a one-yard plunge that was much less difficult.
On the very next play from scrimmage, Roethlisberger completed a pass over the middle to Eli Rogers, who was stripped of the ball by Kyle Van Noy. Rob Ninkovich recovered at the Pittsburgh 28. Four plays later, Brady found a wide open Julian Edelman for 10 yards and a touchdown, making it 33-9 Patriots. Gostkowski missed the extra point but atoned later when he converted a 36-yard field goal with 6:24 left in the game, increasing the lead to 36-9.
The Steelers scored a touchdown in garbage time when Roethlisberger connected with Cobi Hamilton from 30 yards out with 3:36 left. The two-point conversion from Roethlisberger to Williams made it 36-17.
The Patriots now have two weeks to prepare for the high-powered Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI in Houston. Matt Ryan and the Falcons blew out Green Bay, 44-21, in the NFC championship Sunday. The Patriots will be looking for their fifth Super Bowl title, which would be a record for a head coach (Bill Belichick) and quarterback (Brady).