Three things we learned in the Patriots' 36-17 victory over Pittsburgh Sunday night.
1. Hogan is a hero in the AFC Championship game
The next time the Patriots and Steelers face off, maybe Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin will see to pay more attention to New England wide receiver Chris Hogan. Or any. Hogan, playing in his first conference championship, and Julian Edelman combined for 298 yards receiving with three touchdowns (two for Hogan) during the Patriots’ 36-17 win in the AFC Championship game. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady connected with Hogan for his first touchdown of the night, finding the former Buffalo Bill standing all alone — and we mean, all alone — in the end zone near the end of the first period. To that point in the game, Hogan already had 57 yards receiving, quickly becoming Brady’s go-to man for the evening. That case only became more obvious. By the time the second period was a little more than halfway over, Hogan upped those totals to 117 yards and two touchdowns, the second caught on his seventh ball of the night, courtesy the Patriots’ swift execution of a 34-yard flea flicker. Just like that, it became the first-ever multiple touchdown game for Hogan, regular season, or in the postseason (this being his second-career playoff game and all). He ended the night with 180 yards receiving, while Edelman remained his steady presence with a 118-yard night, most of his catches going as grinders against the Pittsburgh defense. No matter, Hogan or Edelman, it was a two-headed machine for Brady and the Patriots all evening.
2. Bell doesn’t toll for the Steelers
If the Patriots’ perceived greatest task against the Steelers was trying to find a way to contain both Steelers superstars Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, well, mission accomplished, even if it did take an injury to the running back to help deliver the feat. Bell, who came into the game having already set the postseason rushing record for the Steelers, left the game during the final drive of the first quarter, an offensive sequence he spent speaking with the Steelers’ team doctor on the sideline rather than pulling off his trademarked stop-and-go maneuvers on the field. Like that mattered all that much for the moment, since fellow Steelers running back D’Angelo Williams took four carries for 25 yards including Pittsburgh’s first touchdown on the night on that drive, which happened to be one more touchdown than Bell managed to score last weekend against the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round. But the Steelers soon reported that Bell was questionable to return with a groin injury, and it really cost Pittsburgh at the end of the half, when back-to-back Williams attempts beginning at the one-yard-line kept the Steelers out of the end zone. By halftime, Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown had been limited to 46 yards combined. Bell would not return and by the end of the evening, it was a grand total of 97 yards for the duo (77 for Brown). Not anything like the Steelers had hoped, obviously.
3. Still…give the defense its due
By the time Bell came out of the game, allowing New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to put more resources on the wide receiver Brown, it signaled an early shift in power. Without Bell, the Patriots were able to double-team the Steelers’ other biggest threat, leaving quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looking for Eli Rogers (seven catches) just as much as the Pro Bowler Brown. Still, the Steelers didn’t complete a play for over 20 yards until there was a little more than a minute remaining in the third quarter, and the sequence where the Patriots stopped Williams twice at the goal line was an impressive feat in itself. Maybe Bell would have broken the plane and made some difference in the game, but considering Pittsburgh lingered in the background of the postseason as the one team that could perhaps handle New England’s defense, only to watch the Steelers manage to only put up 17 points (including a garbage-time touchdown pass to Cobi Hamilton with 3:36 remaining), well, credit to a Patriots defense that has gone from major question mark to one of the team’s signature strengths heading into another Super Bowl.