New England Patriots AFC Championship Takeaways

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FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22: Chris Hogan #15 of the New England Patriots reacts after making a reception during the first half against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The New England Patriots are Super Bowl bound once again.

The Patriots defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17 at Gillette Stadium, marking their eighth Super Bowl appearance in the last 20 seasons. Tom Brady completed 32 of 42 passes for 384 yards and three touchdowns in his all-time record 24th postseason victory. For one team, a familiar sense of triumph. For the other, another playoff run fallen short.

The game was a legendary showdown between two of the best quarterbacks of the 21st century. Brady was aiming to continue his dominance of both the Steelers and the postseason, while Ben Roethlisberger looked to solidify himself as an all-time great with a fourth Super Bowl appearance. There was certainly a lot on the line, and the AFC’s two best teams didn’t disappoint, with New England emerging victorious. Here are three Patriots takeaways from Sunday night’s AFC Championship.

New England Patriots AFC Championship Takeaways

Tom Brady, Chris Hogan Lead Relentless Offensive Attack

They don’t call him “Seven-Eleven” for nothing.

Chris Hogan seemed to find the open field all night, setting a Patriots playoff record with 180 receiving yards on just nine catches. Hogan also had two touchdowns, including a 34-yard grab on the famed “flea-flicker” play. He was Tom Brady’s favorite option with 12 total targets on the night.

With a six-point spread, the game was expected to be more evenly matched. But Hogan’s name stood out as an X-factor. Still, Brady was at his best even when he wasn’t looking to throw to number 15.

Brady connected with eight other receivers, including Julian Edelman, who had eight receptions and 118 yards. Edelman and Hogan’s combined 298 receiving yards are the most by a wide receiver duo in conference championship history.

Brady and company spread the field right out of the gate, ditching their oft-conservative first quarter game plan. They set the tone through the air, and Pittsburgh’s secondary was slow to the ball throughout the game.

Without Bell, Steelers Fail to Make a Sound

To say Pittsburgh’s offense lacked a spark was an understatement. The Steelers offense failed to make any kind of an impact Sunday night.

First-team All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell went down in the first half with a groin injury and did not return. He tallied just six rushes for 20 yards, and no receptions. After rushing for 167 and 170 yards, respectively, in the Steelers first two playoff games, his absence was certainly a factor.

The lack of a running game placed too much pressure on Roethlisberger’s air attack. New England was able to drop five to seven men in coverage nearly every play, and despite Big Ben’s 314 yards, the Patriots defense made timely break-ups, and scored ten points off of two key turnovers. Forced to throw close to the goal line, the Steelers scored just one touchdown in three trips inside the 20-yard line.

Backup running back DeAngelo Williams had just 34 yards on 14 carries. New England’s stout defensive front held Pittsburgh to their lowest rushing total in a game this season (54 yards).

Near-Flawless Execution

After an extremely sloppy showing in the divisional playoff round against the Houston Texans, Bill Belichick’s team was highly efficient in every phase of the game against the Steelers Sunday night.

New England had no turnovers but forced two Pittsburgh turnovers. They held the Steelers to just nine points in the red-zone, and committed only two penalties for a total loss of ten yards.

Coming off a game in which he was frequently knocked down, the offensive line kept Brady relatively upright. He was sacked just twice, and only hit on one other occasion. With solid protection, Patriots receivers exposed holes in Pittsburgh’s zone coverage throughout the game.

Brady was careful, but efficient. He did not make a single dangerous throw into heavy coverage, and carefully chose times to throw the ball away. He made pre-snap adjustments all night, recognizing favorable matchups underneath the Steeler defensive backs, who often gave New England receivers a lot of room with which to work.

Pittsburgh simply lacked the aggressiveness needed to win in Foxboro. The Patriots had the upper-hand from the very first play of the game and never let up on the gas.

New England’s defense was finally tested by an elite quarterback, and the unit passed that test with flying colors. Against an evenly explosive offense, the Tom Brady-led attack was flat-out better. But one obstacle remains. For Brady, immortality is just a victory away.

Super Bowl 51 between the Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons will take place on Sunday, February 5th at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX.

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