FOXBORO, Ma. -- Outplayed. Outcoached. Outclassed.
If the New England Patriots are nearing the end of a 15-year dynasty, they sure have a funny way of showing it.
Tom Brady picked apart the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night just as he has his entire life, this time with a postseason franchise-record 384 passing yards in a 36-17 win in the AFC Conference Championship Game.
Brady and the Patriots picked the Steelers' zone defenses apart without Rob Gronkowski, but the tight end's absence didn't matter because Chris Hogan, an underrated and heretofore unknown fourth-year pro out of Monmouth, caught nine passes for another franchise-record 180 yards and touchdowns of 16 and 34 yards.
If Brady wasn't finding Hogan, he was connecting with Julian Edelman, who caught eight passes for 118 yards and a 10-yard touchdown.
The first touchdown, on a third-and-6, was scored by a wide-open Hogan after the interior picked up the Steelers' inside linebackers firing on a delayed blitz.
The second touchdown, a 34-yarder to Hogan, came off a flea-flicker in which free safety Mike Mitchell bit on the run and was beaten over the top.
"It was just a great call," said Brady. "They were a little winded, I thought."
The Steelers, meanwhile, had lost Le'Veon Bell to a groin injury late in the first quarter. He returned for one carry in the middle of the second quarter, but left again for good.
The Steelers did have a chance to cut deeply into the Patriots' lead before the half, but failed miserably after Jesse James gave them a first down at the one-foot line. But a couple of tackles-for-loss and an interception forced a field goal and a 17-9 halftime deficit.
The Steelers got the ball first in the second half, but a three-and-out was followed by this Patriots scoring blitz:
- A picked-up blitz allowed a 24-yarder to Hogan to set up a 47-yard field goal.
- A pair of picked-up blitzes allowed a 17-yard pass to Edelman and a 39-yard pass to Hogan, before LeGarrette Blount carried a pile 18 yards to the 1. Blount carried it in for the score.
- An Eli Rogers fumble set up an easy 10-yard touchdown pass to Edelman against a five-man rush that failed to bother Brady, and the Patriots led by 33-9 late in the third quarter.
Another Stephen Gostkowski field goal extended the lead to 36-9 before Roethlisberger hit Cobi Hamilton for a 30-yard score and connected with DeAngelo Williams for two points to close out the scoring.
"You've got to compliment them. It starts there," said Mike Tomlin. "But we didn't make enough plays. We didn't execute enough. We didn't put our guys in good enough position consistently. We failed collectively."
@ The 39-year-old Brady picked the Steelers apart for his 10th win in 12 meetings because the Steelers couldn't penetrate a supposedly soft offensive line.
The Patriots' offensive line had been beaten badly the previous week by the Houston Texans, and Brady put the heat on his group at practice all week. He was sacked twice by the Steelers but hit only three times.
Javon Hargrave sacked him early, but the Steelers didn't get to Brady again until Sean Davis got him with a coverage sack in the fourth quarter.
"Yeah, he picked us apart," said a distraught Stephon Tuitt. "We didn't get there and he picked us apart."
"They did a great job of finding our blitzes," said Ryan Shazier. "I guess they figured we were going to attack the middle because last week they didn't do a good job of protecting him up the middle. This week they emphasized that in practice and they made sure they were ready."
The Patriots were 11 of 17 on third downs, doing most of the damage after an 0-for-2 start.
@ Bell said he's been "micro-managing" his sore groin "throughout the whole thing, just kind of keeping it to myself, not really trying to scare anybody."
Bell wouldn't put a length of time since it first bothered him, but said "today it just kind of broke the camel's back and I couldn't go."
He wasn't having much success against the Patriots anyway. The linebackers seemed to patiently play his peek-a-boo game along with him as he rushed for 20 yards on six carries (3.3).
Williams played most of the final three quarters and gained 34 yards on 14 carries with seven catches for 51 yards. His 5-yard touchdown run cut the Patriots' early lead to 10-6 before Chris Boswell missed the extra point.
Tomlin was asked if the loss of Bell caused him to change offensive philosophies.
"No question," he said.
@ The turning point, at least from the Steelers' perspective, was the failure to score a touchdown after a first-and-goal at the one-foot line late in the first half. Williams carried twice for a loss of four yards, followed by an incompletion and a 23-yard field goal.
Tomlin said he's not opposed to sneaking, even though Roethlisberger rarely does it.
"We ran a play that worked all year," said David DeCastro. "Maybe they were ready for it. Give them credit. They made a play that pushed us back. Second time they brought a funky blitz and we weren't on the same page. Like I said, man, you had to be perfect (to beat them). We weren't. Give them credit."
Tomlin was asked if settling for a field goal and a 17-9 halftime deficit had a psychological effect on the team.
"I don't know about psychologically," he said. "We would've liked to have scored a touchdown there. We weren't able to do it. It still would've been a one-score game, but it would've been significant right there to get the seven. We didn't."
@ The Steelers were predominantly a cover-3 team under Dick LeBeau and have since incorporated more cover-2. Regardless, the last 15 years they've always been primarily a zone team and that's never a good matchup for Brady.
Tomlin was asked if he considered playing more press man on defense.
"Obviously you weigh those options in preparation," he said. "We stand by what we did in the game. We just didn't do it well enough."
@ No one was in a good mood in the locker room, and James Harrison might have been the last person to ask if the Patriots had won the line of scrimmage. That's what one reporter wanted to know.
"Nothing was won on the line of scrimmage," said Harrison. "They out-executed us. They did not out-physical us. They did not push us around. They did not got out there and just dog us. They out-executed us. They sped up the tempo and did what they had to do to get the win."
The Patriots rushed for 57 yards on 27 carries (2.1 avg.). Blount was 16-for-47 and Pitt's Dion Lewis was 6-for-11. The Patriots are 16-0 when Lewis plays.
@ Speaking of turning up the tempo, it fit Brady like the proverbial glove. And without Bell, the Steelers couldn't control the clock and keep Brady off the field. The general styles of play were mentioned when Tomlin was asked about his defense's blitzing.
"It wasn't effective," Tomlin said. "We did at times. When we did it wasn't as effective as we would've liked it to be. They made some quick throws. The style of play of the game was probably what was most disappointing. It leaned more toward their style of play as opposed to our style of play. That's not what we wanted."
Did Tomlin want to run the ball more?
"Not necessarily specifically that," he said. "But they played the type of ball that they normally play and we didn't play the type of ball that we normally play. In order for us to be successful we felt we had to play our style of ball. We didn't get to do that."
@ The general feeling of exasperation in playing, and losing to, the Patriots, was, the Steelers hoped, a thing of the past. But DeCastro just shook his head and said that "playing them is so weird."
"They just make plays," he said. "They're always in the spot, never bust anything. You're the ones making mistakes. But you've got to give them credit because they force you into those situations. They're a good team."
@ Lawrence Timmons was the Steelers' runaway tackles leader with 14, among those were two tackles-for-loss. His contract is up, but in summing up the loss he indicated his plan is to return.
"We're just going to take it on the chin, learn from it and get ready for next year," he said.
What did the Steelers want to do against the Patriots that they couldn't?
"We really wanted to go to the Super Bowl," he said.
The Patriots will instead go for a record ninth time.