FOXBOROUGH — Tom Brady tipped his cap to the Steelers’ defense and lamented the Patriots’ inability to run the football Sunday night.
“I thought their linebackers played great,” Brady said. “It’s a tough run-stopping defense, always has been over the years. And I don’t think we were as productive as we wanted to be in the run game.”
So the Patriots did what they always do in case of emergency — they put the ball in Brady’s hands. And, like he has in so many big games over the last 16 seasons, the quarterback delivered.
Brady was the star of the Patriots’ 36-17 win over the Steelers in the AFC Championship game, throwing for a playoff franchise-record 384 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a sterling 127.5 passer rating.
Brady and the Patriots marched up and down the field on the Steelers’ recently improved defense, scoring on 7 of 10 real drives (four touchdowns, three field goals).
And the offensive performance was a marked difference from the Patriots’ game plan from the last time they faced the Steelers, back in Week 7.
In that game, a 27-16 win for the Patriots, Brady had a pedestrian 222 passing yards as the Steelers blanketed Rob Gronkowski. But LeGarrette Blount picked up the slack with 127 rushing yards (5.3 average) and two touchdowns.
On Sunday, the Patriots couldn’t get anything going in the run game, with Blount, Dion Lewis, and James White combining for 23 carries for 58 yards (2.5 average).
Fortunately for the Patriots, they have a pretty good quarterback.
“You have to give it to him today,” Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. “He made a lot of plays out there, made a lot of great plays down the field. We tried to get pressure on him, but we’ve got to give it to him.”
While Brady gets the credit, it was really the success of the passing game in general. The offensive line protected Brady well, as he was hit just three times in 44 passing plays (two sacks and a hit). Lewis and Blount chipped in with some great pass protection on the blitz.
And Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman were open all day long across the middle of the field, exploiting soft spots in the Steelers’ zone defense. Usually it’s Gronkowski streaking down the middle for touchdowns, but with Gronk sidelined with a back injury, Hogan (nine catches, 180 yards, two touchdowns) and Edelman (eight catches, 118 yards, touchdown) filled in quite nicely.
“Tom played well, but again, the whole offense played well,” said Bill Belichick, who is going to his seventh Super Bowl with Brady as his quarterback. “Good protection, lots of good running after the catch, good offensive production.”
The previous game against the Steelers was a grind for the Patriots — they ran only 57 plays, gained 362 total yards, and held the ball for less than 28 minutes. In Sunday’s rematch, the Patriots picked up the tempo, utilizing a fast-paced, no-huddle offense that tired out a Steelers defense that doesn’t substitute too often.
The results — 71 plays, 431 total yards, and more than 31 minutes of possession, plus 11 more points on the scoreboard.
Brady said the up-tempo offense also came as a result of the Patriots’ struggles running the ball Sunday.
“It was a little bit of a slugfest there at the line of scrimmage,” Brady said. “To go fast and try to keep them off balance was good. That worked a little bit. And I still wish we had made a few more plays out there tonight, but we’ll watch the film and try to figure it out for the next game.”
The up-tempo offense helped the Patriots gain big chunks in the passing game. In the October game, the Patriots had only two passes over 20 yards. On Sunday, Brady had six such passes, five of which went to Hogan, who caught passes of 22, 24, 26, 34 and 39 yards.
The 34-yarder was a flea-flicker that resulted in a touchdown. Edelman also had a 41-yarder early in the game.
“Nice to gain some chunks that way, when you get some misdirection, double pass, flea-flicker, something like that,” Brady said. “It’s a big spark for the team.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he was disappointed that the Patriots were able to dictate the flow of the game.
“Not a lot went our way tonight. Not only in terms of the final score, but just how the game was played. They are to be complimented for that,” he said. “The style of play of the game was probably what was most disappointing. It leaned towards more of their style of play than our style of play and that’s not what we wanted.”
And if there were any doubt, Brady proved that at age 39 he’s still very much on top of his game — particularly with his first touchdown pass to Hogan, in which Brady sidestepped the pass rush, looked off the safety, and found Hogan wide open for a 16-yard score.
“I moved [the safety] a little bit to the left, because they were pressuring up the middle and the pocket kind of collapsed,” Brady said. “So I kind of slid to the left and I had good vision. They bit down on Julian pretty hard, then [Hogan] was standing there in the back of the end zone.”
Now the Patriots have two weeks to prepare for Super Bowl LI, the ninth Super Bowl in franchise history. The Patriots know that as long as Brady is behind center, they’ll have a chance to win.
“Any time you’re on the field with No. 12, it’s special,” Hogan said. “You never take that for granted. He’s the greatest, and he’s a huge part of why we’re so successful.”
Watch: Ben Volin and Jim McBride break down the Patriots’ win
Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady, two of the AFC’s premier quarterbacks, have now had nine head-to-head meetings, and Brady holds a sizable edge in team and personal success.
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