FOXBOROUGH — History. And revenge.
The Patriots trumped the Pittsburgh Steelers, 36-17, in the AFC Championship game Sunday night to advance to Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons in Houston Feb. 5. New England becomes the first NFL franchise to make it to nine Super Bowls, and Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have a chance to become the first coach and quarterback to win five.
But this New England matchup with Matt Ryan and the Falcons is much more than a shot at ring records and grid immortality.
Above all else, it will be a showdown with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Patriots-Falcons is going to be New England’s Super Bowl In Context, an opportunity to make Goodell swallow his shield and present Bob Kraft, Belichick, and Brady with their fifth Lombardi Trophy just a few months after Brady dropped his court appeals and served his heinous four-game suspension.
“All of you in the stadium understand how big this win was,’’ Kraft said when it was over. “But we have to go to Houston and win one more.’’
Brady added, “We’ll see if we can write the perfect ending in a couple of weeks.’’
There’s nothing subtle about any of it. Goodell would not come to Foxborough after he dropped the Deflategate hammer on the Patriots. We have not seen him in two full years. But the commissioner won’t be able to avoid the fury of Kraft, Belichick, and Brady in Houston, where the Patriots are 3-point favorites to win their fifth Super Bowl of this century.
New England’s ticket to Houston was punched Sunday at Gillette when the Patriots (16-2) overwhelmed the estimable Steelers on a rainy, 40-degree night in front of 66,829 (1 million, according to the White House). Brady toyed with the Steelers’ defense, completing 32 of 42 passes for 384 yards (three touchdowns) and converting 11 of 17 third downs. The Patriots’ defense finally played an elite quarterback, and they smothered Ben Roethlisberger the same way they stuffed Brock Osweiler and Jared Goff.
We thought the Steelers would put up a fight. They did not. They turned the Lamar Hunt Trophy game into the Lamar Hunt Tomato Can game. Here’s hoping the Steelers don’t blame it on dirty tricks. This was a simple beatdown.
It was New England’s record sixth consecutive apppearance in the AFC Championship game, and the Patriots wheeled out all the big shots for the historic event. It was New England’s last chance to see the 2016-17 Patriots in person, and the conference championship game was heavy on celebrity and celebration.
An hour before kickoff, a dapper Kraft prowled the sidelines and exchanged greetings and hugs with Jon Bon Jovi, Donnie Wahlberg, John Calipari, Steve Pagliuca, Tedy Bruschi, CBS boss Les Moonves, training guru Alex Guerrero, and anyone else with a remote connection to Patriot greatness, past or present. Alas, there was no sighting of Goodell. The Commish was busy turning out the lights at the Georgia Dome, a football palace steeped in history like none other.
Like all who dare enter the belly of the Gillette beast, the Steelers seemed perfectly spooked from the jump. They were coming off a raucous week in which star wideout Antonio Brown embarrassed his coach and franchise with a Facebook live video of coach Mike Tomlin calling the Patriots a pack of expletives.
That wasn’t all for the Steelers. On Friday, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports columnist submitted that the Steelers might again be victims of “extra stuff” that goes on in New England. This was a clear reference to Spygate, Deflategate, Scott Zolak in Tomlin’s headset, and the proverbial warm drinks and trash cans that have been the bullet points of suspicions about Patriots dirty tricks though the years. This nonstop paranoia was emboldened in Steeler-land Sunday morning when a 25-year-old guy from East Boston was arrested for pulling a fire alarm at the Steelers’ Logan Airport Hilton hotel headquarters at 3 a.m.
In the end, none of it mattered. The Patriots beat teams because they are more talented, smarter, and better coached. This game was no exception.
It was a 10-6 game early in the second quarter and New England’s lead was only 17-9 at halftime.
Then came the jailbreak. An eight-play, 88-yard drive, capped by a 1-yard touchdown plunge by LaGarrette Blount, made it 27-9 with 2:44 left in the third. After a Pittsburgh fumble, Julian Edelman (wide open like most Patriots receivers on this night) caught a 10-yard touchdown pass and it was 33-9.
At this juncture, the public address system piped “Josie” to the masses, and the inimitable Zolak — custodian of school spirit (and “Josie”) — was featured on the big videoboard holding a yellow sign that read, “Where is Roger?’’
The scoreboard folks quickly cut away from Zo, but the party was officially on. Fans chanted “Ro-ger, Ro-ger” when play resumed.
The fourth quarter was simply more performance art and homage to Patriot greatness. Plenty of “Where is Roger?’’ chants. Belichick and Brady kept trying to score. They don’t like being called expletives, and the revenge tour takes no prisoners.
“It’s all about the players,’’ said a somewhat happy and animated Belichick. “They work hard, they’re unselfish, and they’re tough.’’
Tight end Martellus Bennett got into the spirit of the night minutes after the game ended, waving pom-poms and dancing with Patriots cheerleaders while the PA blared Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.’’
After the trophy presentation, while fans filed out of the stadium toward the Route 1 gridlock, the PA sent them home with U2’s “It’s a Beautiful Day.’’
The Patriots are going back to the Super Bowl.
It’s a date with the Atlanta Falcons.
It’s a date with history.
And it’s a chance to go eyeball to eyeball with commissioner Roger Goodell.
Watch: Ben Volin and Jim McBride break down the Patriots’ win
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Shaughnessy.