AFC Championship: Key stats and observations

The New England Patriots weren’t dominant in any one category, but they were better in nearly every category in a 36-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers to advance to Super Bowl LI.

New England Patriots 36, Pittsburgh Steelers 17

 Tom Brady eliminated the turnovers from the divisional round and outplayed Ben Roethlisberger in an AFC Championship Game that saw the New England Patriots build up a 17-9 halftime lead, then blow the doors off the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Super Bowl hopes with a 19-0 run to start the second half.

One of the biggest series came late in the first half. The Steelers appeared to cut the deficit to 17-13 on a 19-yard touchdown to Jesse James, but upon review he was ruled down less than a foot short of the end zone. The Steelers were stuffed for losses on two straight runs and then Roethlisberger threw wide of Eli Rogers on third down and the Steelers settled for a field goal and a 17-9 deficit that stood until halftime.

It was the first time in the Steelers’ last 20 playoff instances of first-and-goal from the 1-yard line that they didn’t score a touchdown, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

The Steelers averaged only 2.7 yards per carry with DeAngelo Williams forced into action, as he averaged only 2.4 yards on 14 carries.

The Steelers came into the game with their three B’s – Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown as hot as any threesome in the playoffs. However, Pittsburgh lost Bell to a groin injury in the first half and he was limited to six carries for 20 yards.

Brown, vilified for his Facebook Live video in the locker room right after the Steelers’ win last week, wasn’t much of a factor in the first half. He had three catches for 26 yards and ended the game with seven catches for 77 yards while the Patriots had two receivers – Chris Hogan (nine catches, 180 yards and two TDs) and Julian Edelman (8-118-1) over 100 yards.

Brady returned to his masterful, efficient form, throwing for 384 yards, three touchdowns, avoiding an interception and producing a 127.5 rating.

It wasn’t so much that the Patriots dominated any particular stat, they were simply better in nearly everything and Bill Belichick’s teams know how much the details matter. They led in total yards (431-368), net punting average (48.5-38.5) to win the field position battle when needed, didn’t turn the ball over while taking it away from the Steelers at two key junctures, and were better in the red zone (60 percent efficiency to 33 percent) and goal-to-go situations (2-for-3 compared to 0-for-2).

Some key observations, numbers:

  • In 11 possessions, the Patriots punted only twice.
  • Late in the second quarter, both quarterbacks were 15-for-19, but the difference was that Brady had 209 yards, two touchdowns and a 147.6 rating. Roethlisberger, victimized by a couple of drops from the receivers, had 118 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions for a rating under 100.
  • No team turns underrated receivers into stars like the Patriots and Hogan was the receiving star of this game, catching seven passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns and finished with 180 yards. His big play came on a well-time flea flicker for a touchdown. Hogan became only the second player in the last 10 years of playoff games to have five plays of at least 20 yards, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
  • That second touchdown pass from Brady to Hogan marked the 19th career postseason game that Brady threw multiple touchdowns in a postseason game, extending his record (Brett Favre is second with 15 such games).
  • A 31-yard field goal in in the first half from Stephen Gostkowski set a new Patriots record with 27 field goals in the playoffs.
  • Despite having the lead for the entire first half, the Patriots still threw the ball on 75 percent of their plays – eight rushes for the running backs, 24 pass attempts for Brady.
  • The first half was clean. Neither team had a turnover or a penalty. However, the Patriots were able to open up their lead on two potential turnovers. The first came when Brady took a third-and-1 situation and ran a quarterback sneak. He picked up the first down, but appeared to fumble on the play and the Steelers thought they had the ball. However, the officials ruled there was no fumble and, despite a Steelers challenge, the ruling on the field stood.  Later in the third quarter, Eli Rogers fumbled after a 5-yard completion from Roethlisberger, the Patriots recovered and scored another touchdown to open up a 33-9 lead.
  • Brady also reached his 11th career postseason game with 300 yards passing to extend his NFL record in that category.  Two plays later, the Patriots scored a touchdown after LeGarrette Blount rushed two times for a combined 19 yards.
  • The game was Brady’s 33rd postseason game, extending his NFL record.

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