By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — The New England Patriots are heading to the Super Bowl. And with authority.
Though it was just a one-possession game at halftime, the Patriots dominated in the third quarter, putting up 16 points and building a lead that proved insurmountable for Pittsburgh.
By the end, the Patriots had 431 yards of offense, 36 points, and two turnovers forced. Most importantly, they had a victory — and with it, a ticket to Super Bowl LI in Houston.
And so, here are the Four Ups and the Four Downs, though given the lopsided way this game turned out, those numbers might be slightly adjusted.
Make no mistake: Chris Hogan is a very good receiver. He’s fast, he has sure hands, and at 6-foot-1, he’s got decent size. But still, not even the biggest Chris Hogan fan in the universe could have foreseen this type of performance.
Hogan caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
His previous career high for receptions in a game was seven.
His previous career high for yards in a game was 129.
And he had never before caught more than one touchdown in any game.
Yet in the biggest game of his life, he turned in the performance of a lifetime. For much of the night, the Steelers seemed to be unaware of his presence on the field, and so he ended up being more open than you might typically see a receiver be in a conference title game. But still, numbers like that are earned, and they went a long way in leading the Patriots to this victory.
There is simply no stopping a wholly focused Tom Brady. It is a sight to behold.
And that’s what the Steelers had to deal with on Sunday evening, as Brady was as sharp as he’s ever been in his Hall of Fame career.
He completed 32 of his 42 passes (76.2 percent) for 384 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. It was, remarkably, a new postseason career high and franchise high for passing yards in a postseason game for Brady and the Patriots, respectively. For someone with the postseason resume of Brady, that’s really saying something.
It was a performance that inspired several bursts of “Brady” chants from the Gillette Stadium crowd, and it was one that set him up to play in his record seventh Super Bowl.
Goal Line Defense
It wasn’t all about offense, of course, as the Steelers were held to just nine points throughout the portion of the game that actually mattered. And the defense on the goal line had a lot to do with that.
The first stand came just before halftime, after a Pittsburgh touchdown was taken off the board on video replay and the ball was instead placed inside the 1-yard line. On first-and-goal, running back DeAngelo Williams was swallowed up by Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung and a host of blue jerseys. On second down, Vincent Valentine burst through the line and stopped Williams for a loss of three yards. And on third down, Ben Roethlisberger threw incomplete to Eli Rogers short of the goal line. The Steelers had to settle for a field goal.
The next stand came early in the fourth quarter, with the Steelers looking to get back into a 33-9 game. The defense stopped Williams on first and second down from the 6- and 5-yard line, and on third-and-3, the Steelers once again had a touchdown come off the board. This time, it was due to receiver Cobi Hamilton stepping out of bounds before catching the ball. The loss-of-down penalty set up a fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line, and Logan Ryan blanketed Hamilton to force an incompletion on a fade in the end zone.
They were big-time plays in big-time moments, and they were the result of a team dedication. It was a sight to see.
Joe Thuney allowed an early sack by Javon Hargrave, and David Andrews might have snapped the ball too early once, but other than that, the unit put in a strong effort to keep Brady from absorbing too many blows against a defense that ranked ninth in the NFL in sacks this year. The only other sack Brady took came when Pittsburgh rushed three on a third-and-goal from the 8-yard line, leading to Brady running around waiting for someone to work himself open.
The line also helped a rushing attack that was effective when it needed to be, with LeGarrette Blount running for 47 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.
Kyle Van Noy
The Patriots were in control of the game, but they really needed a turnover to put an early end to it. Kyle Van Noy made it happen.
On a first down for Pittsburgh just after the Patriots stretched their lead to 27-9, Roethlisberger completed a pass to Rogers over the middle. The receiver made a step to turn upfield for more yards, but Van Noy wrapped his arm around Rogers’ hip and got his hand right on the ball. It came loose, and Rob Ninkovich was there to recover the fumble. Four plays later, the Patriots were in the end zone, and the game was all but over with more than a full quarter left to play.
Did Logan Ryan give up some yards in this game? Most certainly. But in the playoffs, as in any game, it’s all about getting off the field. And Ryan played a major role in ending several Pittsburgh drives.
On Pittsburgh’s opening drive on a third-and-1, Roethlisberger threw deep to Sammie Coates. Ryan was in lockstep with the receiver and broke up the pass, leading to a punt.
On the opening drive of the second half on a third-and-4, Roethlisberger threw to Rogers, but Ryan broke it up.
And on that aforementioned fourth-down incompletion in the end zone, it was Ryan battling with Hamilton to force the incompletion.
Malcolm Butler also had a third-down pass breakup on the Steelers’ second drive of the game while covering Antonio Brown.
The special teams ace left the game due to a head injury. It’s been quite the year for him, with his trip to the Olympics and his contributions for the Patriots, but a head injury most certainly puts his status for the Super Bowl in jeopardy.
The rookie receiver was back after missing Week 17 and the divisional round due to a knee injury. But he failed to contribute to this win, dropping a pass off his hands in the opening drive and being about 1 centimeter out of bounds on a third-down pass that would have kept another drive alive. He also appeared to have run the wrong route on an incompletion in the first quarter. He finished with just one reception for five yards on four targets.