Sports Football

NFL PLAYOFFS

Tom Brady guides Patriots to another Super Bowl appearance

John Kryk

By John Kryk, Toronto Sun

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates with wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) after throwing a touchdown pass during the second half of the AFC Championship game against the Steelers in Foxborough, Mass., on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017. (Matt Slocum/AP Photo)

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates with wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) after throwing a touchdown pass during the second half of the AFC Championship game against the Steelers in Foxborough, Mass., on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017. (Matt Slocum/AP Photo)

FOXBORO, MASS. - 

Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are headed to the Super Bowl. Again.

For the seventh time this century.

And for an NFL-record ninth time in the 51-season history of America’s high holy holiday of hype.

On a 3C night of occasional misty drizzle at Gillette Stadium, the Pats defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17 Sunday in the AFC Championship game.

The Patriots advance to face the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI on Sunday, Feb. 5 at Houston’s NRG Stadium. It sets up as a classic offensive shootout.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet ... It’s unbelievable,” Brady said.

“We should just enjoy this. You never know when you get these opportunities in life. Fortunately, this team has got the opportunity, and now we’ve got to go do something, and take advantage.”

All of us are so used to watching Brady quarterback at football’s highest level in big games, it seemed almost normal for him to complete 19-of-24 passes in the decisive first half, for 222 yards, two scores and no interceptions (a sparkling 133.0 passer rating).

He was insanely good. And throughout.

Brady finished with 384 passing yards -- to break his own franchise playoff record -- on 32-of-42 interception-free completions.

It was the 19th multi-touchdown game of Brady’s post-season career, extending his NFL record, and the ninth time Brady has thrown three touchdown passes in a playoff game, tying his childhood hero Joe Montana’s NFL record.

Not bad for a 39-year-old.

The unlikely offensive hero for the Patriots was wide receiver Chris Hogan, who signed as a restricted free agent in the off-season, after the Buffalo Bills declined to match New England’s reported three-year, $12-million offer.

Hogan had been questionable to play, with a thigh injury. And he seemed to aggravate that injury early on.

But he caught a pair of first-half touchdowns from Brady, the second on a nifty, perfectly executed “flea-flicker” on which running back Dion Lewis faked a line plunge, stopped, and flipped the ball back to Brady, who arced a beautiful deep pass to Hogan. He’d slipped past Pittsburgh free safety Mike Mitchell for the easy score.

“That was just a great call,” Brady said. “(Pittsburgh defenders) were just a little winded, I thought. Got the pitch-back from D-Lew, and I saw Hoags burning up the field, and just laid it out there. Just a great play.”

Hogan kept on catching key passes in the second half. Before the end of the third quarter he broke the Patriots single-game post-season record for receiving yards, with 180, his final total on nine receptions.

“We had a good game plan going in,” Hogan said. “I was just taking advantages of the opportunities that came (to me).”

It was the first multiple-touchdown game of Hogan’s four-year NFL career.

“I’ve worked really hard to get to this point,” he said. “I’m happy for everyone in this locker room. We’ve all worked so hard to get here.”

The Patriots defence played a significant role, too. Every first down by the Steelers seemed like an accomplishment. When the Patriots knocked out star Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell in the second quarter with an announced left-groin injury (he returned for one possession before halftime but did not play in the second half), New England’s chances for victory rose considerably.

When and how did Bell get hurt?

“It was on the second play of the game,” he said. “Obviously I got banged up, but I still tried to give it a go, I still tried to play. It got progressively worse ... I had no burst anymore.”

In some games during Pittsburgh’s nine-game win streak since Nov. 20, Bell had been the sole dominating figure offensively. His loss was huge.

The Patriots themselves have won nine straight games since Nov. 20, and improved to 16-2 on the season.

Pittsburgh, which finishes 13-6, falls to 0-3 against Brady and New England in AFC Championship games. Previous losses came after the 2001 and 2004 seasons.

Overall, the Steelers dropped to 3-3 in conference title-game appearances this century; New England improved to 7-4.

New England led 10-0 after the first quarter, and 17-9 at halftime, then blew the game open in the third.

After forcing Pittsburgh to punt on the opening possession of the third quarter, the Patriots marched 55 yards in nine plays for a 47-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal, to lead 20-9.

Victory then faded far from the Steelers’ view.

Brady piloted the Patriots 88 yards in eight plays, capped by LeGarrette Blount’s one-yard TD plunge.

The New England defence forced a quick fumble at the Patriots’ 28, and Brady quickly made the Steelers pay. He hit Julian Edelman on a couple of crisp passes, the last in the end zone from 10 yards out.

Gostkowski missed the extra point, but New England led 33-9.

It was at this point that the stadium video board showed beloved Patriots radio announcer Scott Zolak, a Patriots QB from 1992-98. When Zolak realized he was on the big board, he reached down and held up a sign to the camera that read, “WHERE IS ROGER?”

The stadium went nuts.

“Roger,” as in NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who for the second consecutive season failed to attend a single playoff game here.

A chant went around the stadium from the Goodell-hating locals -- “Rooooo-ger! ... Rooooo-ger! ...”

The celebration was on. And the Super Bowl party planners in these parts could get to work.

Again.

BUTLER BLANKETS BROWN

If Antonio Brown went to bed Sunday night without the covers on, you couldn’t blame him.

He was blanketed enough earlier in the evening. For three-plus hours, by Malcolm Butler.

In New England’s 36-17 defeat of Pittsburgh in Sunday night’s AFC championship game, Patriots coaches decided to assign their top cornerback, Butler, to cover Brown -- the Steelers’ all-pro wide receiver -- most of the game, man-to-man, no matter which side of centre Brown lined up on.

Sometimes Butler even did so while the rest of New England’s secondary appeared to play zone against the other potential Pittsburgh pass-catchers.

And Butler was magnificent.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger connected with Brown only seven times, for 77 yards and no touchdowns.

It appeared that six of those catches came the rare times Pats coaches changed their coverage to full zone. Only then could Brown free himself into space, for Roethlisberger to find him.

In the first quarter, Butler expertly broke up a long pass intended for Brown, and kept foiling the NFL’s leading TD receiver in the regular season (with 12).

“That’s my job, man,” Butler said.

Was he expecting his coaches to match him up so often against Brown in press-man coverage?

“No, it was no surprise. He knew what it was gonna be, I knew what it was gonna be.

“Whatever role comes up, I’m going to do what I can to execute it and whatever I can to help the team win …. I just got to go out there and play.”

PATS/STEELERS DRAWS MOST VIEWERS

TV ratings in Canada for Sunday’s NFL conference championships rose slightly for the prime-time game, but dropped significantly for the early game.

Atlanta’s defeat of Green Bay in the NFC title game, which began at 3:05 p.m. EST, drew 2.0 million combined on CTV (English) and RDS (French), according to CTV.

That’s a 36% drop from last year, when a record average audience of 2.8 million in the same timeslot watched Denver beat New England in the AFC championship game. Granted, that game had an enormous draw; it was the last ever matchup between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

This year’s AFC championship game, in which New England defeated Pittsburgh, concluded the doubleheader. It began at 6:40 p.m. EST and drew 2.1 million Canadians -- up 5% from the 2.0 million last year who watched Carolina smash Arizona in the NFC title game.

Initial ratings numbers in the U.S. reflected similar year-over-year changes, in severity and direction. SportsTVRatings.com reported a 14% ratings drop for the first game, and a 3% rise for the prime-time tilt.

Also, as in the U.S., considerably more Canadians (10% more) watched last week’s Dallas vs. Green Bay divisional round matchup (2.2 million) than watched Sunday’s NFC championship game. Yes, the Cowboys are that big a draw -- and the Falcons are not.

JoKryk@postmedia.com

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