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FOXBOROUGH — From NFL house arrest to unwanted NFL house guest in Houston at Super Bowl LI, it’s another only Tom Brady storybook tale.

Brady was the pound of Patriot flesh NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wanted to exact for Deflategate, serving a four-game suspension to start the season. Now, he’s going to end the season Feb. 5 against the Atlanta Falcons with a chance to become the only quarterback to hoist the Lombardi Trophy five times.

Deflategate can go down as just another obstacle Brady had to overcome in the remarkable career he has carved out as the consummate winner. A penalty designed to hamper Brady’s pursuit of another championship merely inspired it. Forget one for the thumb. That’s not quite the digit that Brady winning a fifth Super Bowl after serving his Deflategate suspension would signal to Goodell.


“Nah, this is my motivation right here, all these fellas in front of me right here,” Brady said on the AFC Championship presentation stage at Gillette Stadium, disguising his real emotions far better than the Pittsburgh Steelers disguised their coverages.

We finally saw what happens when the Patriots face a legitimate AFC contender with a franchise quarterback. It’s the same thing that happened to the list of unworthy and quarterback-questionable teams they mostly played over the second half of the season — they lose in resounding fashion. Sunday’s AFC Championship game against the Steelers was less a competition and more a ritualistic sacrifice that sent Brady and Bill Belichick to their seventh Super Bowl together.

There can be no more questioning the Patriots’ eminence. The level of competition doesn’t matter because Brady is on another level and the New England defense proved its stinginess was on the level in a 36-17 victory.

The last time the AFC title game was held in Foxborough, back in 2015 against the Indianapolis Colts, the odious air pressure imbroglio known as Deflategate was spawned after a Brady pass was intercepted by D’Qwell Jackson. The Colts stuck a gauge in the ball, opening a Pandora’s Box for the NFL.


The only thing that was deflated on this night was Pittsburgh’s defense, which would have been better off had it used the Lord’s Prayer as its game plan. This rematch was a complete mismatch.

The idea that the Steelers can stop Brady falls in the category of alternative facts. Bouncing back from the lowest postseason completion percentage of his career against Houston, Brady torched the Sons of the Steel Curtain, going 32 of 42 for 384 yards and three touchdowns. In seven games against the Mike Tomlin-coached Steelers, Brady has passed for 2,273 yards and 22 touchdowns with zero interceptions.

Playing in his record 11th AFC title game, Brady played the Steelers like a Stradivarius. He knew exactly what coverage they were in and exactly how to defeat it; it showed as he tied his idol Joe Montana for the most postseason games with three or more touchdowns passes (nine). He also extended his NFL record for 300-yard playoff performances to 11.

Unless you’re Seattle or Denver, if you just do what you do against Brady you are doomed, especially if it’s predictable zone coverages and blitzes.

“You know they did what they did,” said Edelman, who had eight catches for 118 yards and a score. “And we were just able to execute today. They’re a tough team. We made plays, and we have respect for their franchise. We won’t get into that whole thing. They fought hard. Today was just our day.”


Pittsburgh defensive end Stephon Tuitt was a bit less diplomatic. “Yeah, he ripped us apart,” said Tuitt. “We’re going to watch the film and see what happened. We didn’t get there and he picked us apart.”

Brady was 6 of 6 for 66 yards on the Patriots’ first TD drive. His last pass was a 16-yarder to a wide-open Chris Hogan in the back of the end zone on a play where the Steelers brought their inside linebackers while dropping their best pass rusher, Bud Dupree, into coverage. The result was Brady had time to post to his new Instagram account from the pocket before finding Hogan to put the Patriots up, 10-0, in the first quarter.

At that point, Brady was 10 of 12 for 128 yards and a touchdown. The two incompletions were a Malcolm Mitchell drop and an attempted wide receiver screen play where the snap appeared to be out of synch.

Brady just played games with the Pittsburgh defense. On the first touchdown drive, the Patriots lined up in a heavier set with fullback James Develin and LeGarrette Blount in the backfield and one tight end. The Steelers brought a safety down. Then Brady motioned everyone out into an empty set and hit a wide-open Hogan for a 26-yard gain.


New England’s second touchdown came via a flea-flicker. Brady took the ball back from Dion Lewis and lofted a 34-yard pass to Hogan for a 17-6 lead. Brady had his choice of intended TD targets on the play.

Sensing a theme here? The Patriots receivers were often unaccompanied. Hogan finished with nine catches for 180 yards and two scores.

There might have been some Patriots fans who were a bit anxious with New England up, 17-9, at the half, but it felt like it was all under control in Foxborough with TB12 reading the Steelers’ minds.

Two plays after Brady called out the Steelers’ blitz, calmly slid to his right, and hit Hogan for a 39-yard gain, Blount plunged in from the 1 to make it 27-9 with 2:44 left in third quarter. Checking airfare to Houston was allowable.

“He’s the best quarterback to ever play the game,” said Blount.

The Steelers fumbled on the ensuing drive and Brady drove the stake through the Steelers’ hearts, connecting with Edelman for a 10-yard TD on third and goal to make it 33-9. AFC Championship game over, Big Game on.

This will be Brady’s seventh Super Bowl, breaking the record he held with defensive lineman Mike Lodish.

He needs one more win to tell any Deflategate detractors that they can talk to the hand and the five rings adorning it.

The final game of the season and the final word on Deflategate belong to Brady.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.