AFC Championship instant analysis: Patriots pound Steelers to reach another Super Bowl

0:47 | NFL
Top Performers: Conference Championships
Monday January 23rd, 2017

For the ninth time in franchise history and the seventh time since 2001, the Patriots are headed to the Super Bowl. They clinched their berth in this year’s game, against the NFC champion Falcons, with a resounding 36–17 win over the Steelers in the AFC title game.

Five thoughts on New England’s triumph:

1. The Steelers had no answer for Chris Hogan: Hogan was not a high-volume receiver for the Patriots this year—he had 38 receptions during the regular season—but he averaged 17.9 yards per catch, tied for the highest rate in the NFL. On Sunday, he posted a playoff franchise-record 180 yards on nine receptions (20.0 yards per catch) and two TDs.

That’s bad enough for the Steelers, but on most of the nine grabs, he was wide open.

Case in point: On Hogan’s first touchdown, which staked the Patriots to an early 10–0 lead, the Steelers simply failed to cover from snap to catch. Tom Brady waited nearly five seconds before throwing, too, which per Nick Shook of NFL.com was the longest Brady had held the ball on a pass attempt all season.

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Later, on an important third-and-long with the Steelers down just 11, Hogan broke free over the middle for a 39-yard gain. CB William Gay appeared to have initial coverage on him, but no one really ran with Hogan once he broke his route.

Anyone who watched this game heard a bit about Hogan’s background—Penn State lacrosse player, one year playing football at Monmouth, nickname of “7–11” bequeathed by former teammate Reggie Bush because he’s “always open”. But this was Hogan’s first two-touchdown game since 2005, when he was still in high school.

A huge part of the problem for the Steelers, both in covering Hogan and in dealing with the Patriots’ offense in general, is that they tried to play heavy amounts of soft zone coverage. With no pass rush to complement that bend-don’t-break approach, Brady shredded them.

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2. DeAngelo Williams is a great backup, but ...: The Steelers’ offense is nowhere near the same with Le’Veon Bell out of the lineup. Bell rushed just six times before sitting for good with a groin injury.

Williams totaled 85 yards in his stead (34 rushing, 51 receiving) with a touchdown and a two-point conversion, but there is no substitute for Bell’s ability. In a game like this, too, the biggest hit for the Steelers may have come in not having Bell as a pass catcher. Bell caught 75 passes during the regular season, and Ben Roethlisberger no doubt could have used him on a night when a) Antonio Brown was held mostly in check and b) several other receivers had issues making clean catches. (More on both of those topics shortly.)

While Bell’s presence may not have done enough to flip the scoreboard 20-plus points, the Steelers didn’t have the necessary weapons to threaten New England without him.

3. New England’s two goal-line stands: It felt like a massive turning point in the game when it happened, and that inclination turned out to be right. Just after the first half’s two-minute warning, Roethlisberger flipped a pass out to tight end Jesse James, who was initially ruled to have scored a touchdown that would have pulled Pittsburgh within 17–12 (extra point/two-pointer pending).

Replay overturned the touchdown call; the ball was spotted at the one-yard line. The Steelers couldn’t get back across the goal line. Williams was stuffed on first down, then blown up by DT Vincent Valentine on second down, and Roethlisberger fired incomplete on third.

A field goal cut the Patriots’ lead to 17–9, but that was a huge win for the home team.

In the fourth quarter, it happened again. The Steelers picked up a first down at the Patriots’ six, but this time they failed to score at all. Cobi Hamilton’s potential touchdown catch on third down was wiped out by an illegal-touching flag, then cornerback Logan Ryan broke up a fade to Hamilton on fourth down. Granted, New England already led 33–9 at that point, but the second stand sealed the outcome.

The play calling of Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley likely will come under fire in both cases, and deservedly so. The Steelers were well within range for a Roethlisberger sneak on the first play of that first failed goal-line series, yet they handed off to Williams twice. The fourth-down fade to Hamilton on the second trip was utter nonsense.

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4. Missing Martavis Bryant: Back to those Pittsburgh receiver issues. The Steelers have been without the suspended Bryant all year, but it’s hard to say his absence was ever felt more than it was Sunday.

Pittsburgh’s opening possession of the game ended when a perfectly thrown third-and-one deep ball by Roethlisberger slipped through Sammie Coates’s hands. Hamilton failed to come down with multiple chances in the end zone, and veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey looked lost—Roethlisberger missed him on an end-zone shot, then later threw an interception when Heyward-Bey failed to cut off his route.

Credit to Eli Rogers (66 yards receiving) and James (48), but the Steelers had no reliable threat to stretch the field vertically in this game. They badly needed someone to step up opposite Antonio Brown, because ...

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5. New England’s defense is legit: Malcolm Butler, in particular. When the Patriots opted to use man coverage, Brown was reduced to a virtual non-entity in the game, thanks in large part to Butler. New England also pushed safety help over the top of Brown in most cases, which in theory should have opened the field for Pittsburgh’s other weapons. But, again, those secondary and tertiary weapons failed to show up.

The Patriots boasted the NFL’s top-ranked scoring defense in the regular season, allowing about 15.6 points per game. The two goal-line stands were prime examples of how they did that—not by being dominant generating sacks or even by forcing an abundance of turnovers, but by coming up with big plays when they needed to.

Butler also gives them a DB capable of hanging with true No. 1 receivers heads-up (something to file away with Julio Jones now looming). He was very good Sunday night, and the defense took advantage of those Pittsburgh mistakes to help push this game to blowout status.

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