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 anticlimactic 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.
“It’s only two teams left standing, and I’m happy we’re one of them,” Brady said. “That’s what our goal is. And it’s nice to be able to achieve that.”
One more win 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 supposed role in an alleged plot to use under-inflated footballs during the first half of the AFC title game two years ago.
With Sunday’s outcome basically decided by late in the third quarter, 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!”
Brady said he didn’t hear the Goodell chant, and he and Belichick did their best to play down the Deflategate revenge storyline that is sure to dominate Super Bowl week. But they did revel in this season’s accomplishment.
“The numbers are nice and all that,” Belichick said. “But it’s about this team and this year and this group of guys.”
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 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 for 118 . Hogan managed to find open spaces in the Pittsburgh secondary for his touchdown catches of 16 and 34 yards. The second of those came on a flea-flicker, with Brady handing the football to running back Dion Lewis and having the ball pitched back to him before he found Hogan down the field.
Hogan is 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 had never before had two touchdown catches in the same NFL game — regular season or postseason.
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.
Standout running back Le’Veon Bell was hampered by a groin injury and had only six carries. He and wide receiver Antonio Brown, who had seven catches for 77 yards, mostly were non-factors.
“It’s real disappointing,” Bell said. “We work so hard to get here. I felt like I had done a lot to help us get here. To not play and not go to battle with my teammates, it hurt.”
There were some first-half could-have-beens for the Steelers to ponder. They 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.
The Patriots led 17-9 at halftime and sealed the outcome with a 16-point third quarter aided by a lost fumble by Steelers wide receiver Eli Rogers.
“It was a good day,” Brady said. “I mean, we’re going to the Super Bowl, man. . . . You have to be happy now.”