The Patriots earned the Lamar Hunt trophy as the AFC Champions for the second time in three years when they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17 on a rainy, Sunday night in Foxboro. Playing from behind the entire game, Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger piled up 314 passing yards on 47 attempts. Pittsburgh’s offense took a hit in the 1st quarter when Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell exited with a quarter groin injury.
Chris Hogan set a franchise playoff record with 180 receiving yards
Photo by Elise Amendola/AP and published by Daily Hampshire Gazette
Nine Observations from the AFC Championship
1. Chris Hogan is averaging over 20 yards per catch in the playoffs (13 for 275 yards). The receiver seemed invisible to the defense in the 1st quarter when he ran alone up the right seam and easily caught New England’s first touchdown. In the 2nd, safety Mike Mitchell was victimized on a flea flicker, giving Hogan an open path to a second touchdown.
2. Hogan’s big day got started with a screen pass for a first down conversion in the 1st quarter, in which Danny Amendola threw a critical block on cornerback William Gay. Over their two playoff games, Tom Brady has targeted either Julian Edelman or Chris Hogan on 50% of his throws; Dion Lewis, Martellus Bennett, and James White together account for another 30% of the attempts.
3. Tom Brady followed his worst game of the season with perhaps his best: 384 yards and three touchdowns on 42 attempts. Brady’s offense converted 11 of 17 third-downs into firsts, and three-of-five red zone trips into touchdowns. On Brady’s first touchdown to Hogan, credit to center David Andrews and running back James White for holding up against a delayed blitz by both inside linebackers.
4. On the third drive of the game New England went to the “hurry up” with Dion Lewis in at running back and ran six offensive plays in a minute and a half of game time. On the seventh play, Brady called what sounded like a “Jordan” audible that broke a traditional formation into a “five wide” passing look. The shifting Steelers were then out of place to defend a 26-yard completion to Chris Hogan up the left seam.
5. The Patriots’ Joe Thuney was beaten by defensive lineman Javon Hargrave to the outside for a third-down sack in the 1st quarter and later the guard allowed linebacker Lawrence Timmons loose for a tackle of Dion Lewis behind the line in the 3rd. For the second game in a row, New England was ineffective running the ball, averaging 2.5 yards on 23 carries between Lewis, LeGarrette Blount, and James White.
A hard charging Blount running into a group of five defenders at the goal line
Photo by Geoff Burke and published by USA TODAY Sports
6. Under-the-radar rookie Jonathan Jones has been solid on kick coverage: Jones pushed Justin Gilbert out of bound short of the 25 yard line on New England’s first kick off; later in the 1st, Jones’ hit knocked Sammie Coates backwards; and on a 4th quarter punt, Jones’ shoe string tackle saved a potential long gain by Antonio Brown.
7. Malcolm Butler knocked a ball intended for Antonio Brown (77 yards and no scores) away while in man coverage up the left sideline on third-and-six in the 1st quarter. Eric Rowe was beaten for a touchdown by Cobi Hamilton up the right sideline in the 4th and was fortunate that Hamilton (in the 2nd) and Sammie Coates (in the 3rd) dropped nice scoring opportunities from Ben Roethlisberger.
8. Cornerback Logan Ryan continues his strong second-half of the season: In the 1st he pulled down tight end David Johnson for a short gain in the left flat; in the 3rd he broke up a pass intended for Eli Rogers; and in the 4th he defensed a fourth-and-goal attempt to Cobi Hamilton in the right corner of the end zone.
9. Impressive defense from the six-inch line right before half time: Patrick Chung looped around right tackle on first down to slow up DeAngelo Williams for Dont’a Hightower’s tackle. On second down, Vincent Valentine avoided a cut block and broke through to drop Williams for a loss of three. On third down, Jabaal Sheard pressured Roethlisberger to force an incomplete pass and the field goal attempt.
…And One Comment about Super Bowl LI (51):
Not counting the final kneel-down against Seattle, Atlanta’s offense has scored on 13 of their 18 offensive possessions in this year’s playoffs. That’s a total of 10 touchdowns, three field goals, and only five punts for an average of 40 points scored per game. As a point of reference, the Falcons’ playoff scoring average of 40 points beats former powerhouses like the 2001 Rams (37 point average), 2007 Patriots (26 points), and 2013 Broncos (25 points).