Patriots advance to another Super Bowl with rout of Steelers in AFC title game

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The New England Patriots are headed back to what has become their rightful place with Tom Brady as their quarterback and Bill Belichick as their coach: the Super Bowl. Brady’s Deflategate tour will end on the sport’s biggest stage after he passed the Patriots to a 36-17 triumph here Sunday evening in an anticlimax of an AFC championship game.

The Patriots will face the Atlanta Falcons on Feb. 5 in Houston in what will be their seventh Super Bowl appearance with Brady and Belichick. The duo seeks its fifth Super Bowl victory in tandem.

That would result in NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell handing the Super Bowl trophy to the Patriots, something about which fans in these parts dream as the culmination to a season that began with Brady serving his four-game suspension for his role in an alleged plot to use under-inflated footballs during the first half of the AFC title game two years ago.

With the outcome basically decided late in the third quarter Sunday, the crowd at Gillette Stadium noted Goodell’s absence from this game by chanting, “Rog-er! Rog-er!” During the fourth quarter, the chants were, “Bra-dy! Bra-dy!”

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There was plenty of time to celebrate because the Patriots, with help from the Steelers, put this one out of reach relatively early. Brady amassed 384 passing yards, breaking his own franchise record for a postseason game, and threw three touchdown passes, two in the first half to Chris Hogan and one in the third quarter to fellow wide receiver Julian Edelman. Tailback LeGarrette Blount added a touchdown run.

Two of Brady’s receivers topped 100 yards, as Hogan had nine catches for 180 yards and Edelman added eight catches for 118 yards.

The Steelers couldn’t come close to keeping pace. Tailback DeAngelo Williams had a second-quarter touchdown run, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a late touchdown pass to wide receiver Cobi Hamilton. But Roethlisberger also threw an interception and didn’t get much help from his error-prone receivers. Tailback Le’Veon Bell was hampered by a groin injury, and he and wide receiver Antonio Brown mostly were non-factors.

The Patriots led 17-9 after a first half in which Brady threw touchdown passes of 16 and 34 yards to Hogan and the Steelers had some could-have-beens to ponder.

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Those included one wide receiver, Sammie Coates, failing to run down a long pass by Roethlisberger on the Steelers’ opening offensive series and another, Hamilton, dropping a touchdown pass in the second quarter. Hamilton’s drop came on the same drive on which the Steelers had an apparent touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to tight end Jesse James negated by a replay review. James was ruled down by contact inside the 1-yard line. The Steelers ended up going backward and then settling for a field goal.

New England, following an opening-drive field goal, relied on Hogan, a fourth-year pro who was added via restricted free agency in the offseason when the Buffalo Bills declined to match the Patriots’ offer sheet to him. He’d never before had two touchdown catches in the same NFL game, regular season or postseason.

His first touchdown came on a third-and-six play from the Pittsburgh 16-yard line. Brady moved to his left from the pocket and had open field in front of him but had no intention of running. Instead he looked back toward his right and saw Hogan wide open in the back of the end zone. The throw and catch were easy from there.

Hogan also got wide open for his second touchdown, aided by a flea-flicker. Brady handed the ball to running back Dion Lewis, who turned and tossed the football back to Brady. Hogan, by then, was running behind the Pittsburgh secondary and angling toward the corner of the end zone. Brady’s pass was on target and Hogan made the routine grab.

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Things came undone for the Steelers in the third quarter. The Patriots extended the lead on kicker Stephen Gostkowski’s second field goal of the night and Blount’s one-yard touchdown. Steelers wide receiver Eli Rogers lost a fumble, and the Patriots cashed in on Brady’s 10-yard touchdown strike to Edelman.