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Snap Judgments: Tom Brady, Chris Hogan rock Steelers, Patriots advance to record 9th Super Bowl 01.22.17 at 9:44 pm ET
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Jan 22, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan (15) catches a touchdown pass during the second quarter against Pittsburgh Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell (23) in the 2017 AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Hogan (15) catches a touchdown pass during the second quarter against Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell (23) in the 2017 AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. (Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports)

FOXBORO — Another AFC championship win, another re-writing of the NFL record book for the Patriots.

Chris Hogan caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns while Tom Brady managed another perfect game against the Steelers, as the Patriots routed Pittsburgh, 36-17, Sunday night at Gillette Stadium to advance to play the Atlanta Falcons on Feb. 5 in Super Bowl LI in Houston.

In one of his best playoff performances, Brady finished 32-of-42 for a franchise-record 384 yards and three touchdowns and a 127.5 quarterback rating. Since 2007, Tom Brady has 22 touchdowns passes and no interceptions in seven games against Pittsburgh.

The Patriots become the first team in NFL history to appear in nine Super Bowls, eclipsing the eight by the Steelers, Broncos and Cowboys.

Hogan’s 180 yards is a new franchise playoff record while Julian Edelman passed Deion Branch for the most all-time receiving yards in franchise playoff history. Edelman caught eight passes for 118 yards, giving him his fourth career 100-yard receiving game, matching Branch for most in franchise history.

By the time the rout was on late in the third quarter, the sellout Gillette Stadium crowd broke into chants of “Roger, Roger, Roger” after former quarterback and team broadcaster Scott Zolak held up a sign in the booth asking “Where is Roger?” That chorus was repeated time and time again in the fourth quarter. The other star who led the crowd into a frenzy was Jon Bon Jovi, who greeted Bill Belichick with a hug and a kiss on the cheek in pregame. Bon Jovi conducted the crowd as they sang “Living on a Prayer” after a LeGarrette Blount touchdown.

In a game between two high-scoring offenses, it was a crucial goal-line stand in the first half that proved to be the game’s pivotal point. Dont’a Hightower and rookie Vincent Valentine made huge stops on DeAngelo Williams after a touchdown was overturned by replay.

With Tedy Bruschi out for the coin toss as honorary captain for the ninth time, Ben Roethlisberger called tails and it came up heads. As was the case with the AFC championship in Denver in Jan. 2016, when the Patriots elected to receive, the Patriots elected to receive and early on, it was clear why.

Brady came out in a hurry-up offense, throwing over the middle to Martellus Bennett and then finding Julian Edelman on a crossing pattern. The Patriots worked the ball down to the Steelers 13 before settling for a 31-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal. Brady targeted Malcolm Mitchell on third-and-1. The ball went through his hands and was nearly picked off at the Steelers 5.

The Steelers had third-and-1 at its 31 and instead of giving to Le’Veon Bell for the yard, Roethlisberger went for the downs, throwing deep down the left sideline for Sammie Coates. Eric Rowe was in position to break it up at the last moment.

Brady scrambled to his left on third-and-6 and found a wide open Chris Hogan in the back of the end zone on a blown coverage in the Steelers secondary. The 16-yard toss capped an effective 11-play, 80-yard drive, during which the Patriots converted all three down chances. Hogan had four catches for 58 yards on the drive. The score put the Patriots up, 10-0, with 2:47 left in the first quarter.

With Le’Veon Bell out on the sidelines running in place and apparently trying to loosen up his legs following a left groin strain, the Steelers opened the second quarter by marching down the field and into the red zone with plays from Bell’s backup DeAngelo Williams, Antonio Brown and Eli Rogers.

The drive was capped off when Hall ran up the middle for a five-yard TD. In shades of the 2016 AFC championship, when Stephen Gostkowski missed the extra point following New England’s first touchdown, Chris Boswell pulled the extra point wide left and it was 10-6 Patriots.

The Patriots answered right back. A key play was a third-and-8 conversion after LeGarrette Blount was nailed for a 2-yard loss. Brady hit Hogan for 22 yards on the left sideline. On the next play, Brady handed to Dion Lewis, who ran to the line before turning around a tossing the ball back to Brady. Brady then easily lofted the ball to Hogan, who got behind Steelers safety Mike Mitchell and the secondary for an easy 35-yard touchdown score. It was Hogan’s seventh catch on eight targets for 117 yards in the first 25 minutes of the game.

The Steelers responded by marching down the field. Bell returned for the first play of the drive, taking a handoff and rushing just three yards before trotting gingerly off the field. The rest of the drive featured DeAngelo Williams, Antonio Brown and Jesse James. But it was drop in the back of the end zone that proved costly as Cobi Hamilton got behind Eric Rowe but dropped a pass. But on the next play, Roethlisberger found Jesse James in the right flat. But it was Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon making the stop on a play that was initially called a touchdown. After review, the ball was placed at the six-inch line.

The Patriots stiffened. Dont’a Hightower got to Williams for a one-yard loss on first down. Vincent Valentine pegged Williams for a three-yard loss and Roethlisberger threw incomplete on third down, forcing the Steelers to settle for a 23-yard field goal.

The Patriots took a 17-9 lead to the locker room for halftime.

Closing Time noteTom Brady had his ninth career playoff game of at least 3 TD passes, tying him with Joe Montana for most all time.

[For a full box score and stats, click here.]

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Scene-setting from Gillette: Patriots, Steelers race to become first to 9 Super Bowl appearances at 2:03 pm ET
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The stage is set for the AFC Championship between the Patriots and Steelers Sunday at Gillette Stadium. (Mike Petraglia/

FOXBORO — The stage is set at Gillette Stadium for NFL history to be made.

The winner of the AFC championship will become the first team ever to appear in nine Super Bowl games.

When the Patriots and Steelers square off, the weather will be relatively mild. Temperatures are expected in the mid-to-upper 40s for the 6:40 p.m. kickoff. There is a chance of precipitation around 8 p.m. or around halftime of the game. Wind could be a factor, with a gust out of the northeast expected between 10 and 12 MPH.

Otherwise, cloudy skies will give way to darkness as the two teams battle for the third time in AFC championship history. The previous two encounters have taken place at Heinz Field. In Jan. 2002, the Patriots beat the Steelers, 24-17, to advance to Super Bowl XXXVI. Three years later, the Patriots beat the then-rookie Roethlisberger, 41-27, to head to Super Bowl XXXIX. In that game, Rodney Harrison intercepted Roethlisberger just before halftime and raced for the touchdown that gave the Patriots a 24-3 halftime lead.

Tom Brady is looking to advance to his record seventh Super Bowl, as is head coach Bill Belichick. The Patriots are 4-1 in the five previous AFC championship games at Gillette Stadium and Brady has never lost to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at Gillette, going 4-0 against him. Roethlisberger’s only win at Gillette came in Nov. 2008 when he beat the Patriots, 33-10, in a game that featured Matt Cassel as the New England signal caller.

Brady has carved up the Steelers in his career. In two playoff games, he’s completed 26-of-39 passes for 489 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Overall, in posting a 9-2 mark against the Steelers, he has completed over 68 percent of his passes, with 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Since 2007, Brady has 19 touchdowns without an interception, while posting a 5-1 record.

The Patriots are making their record sixth straight AFC championship game appearance and 13th overall. They are 8-4 overall in the previous 12. They have lost three of the last four. Pittsburgh is making its record 16th appearance in the game, and have a 8-7 mark in the previous 15.

On the injury front, Malcolm Mitchell is expected to dress and be active for the game after missing the regular season finale and the Texans playoff game with a knee injury. The activation gives the Patriots the chance to dress five pure wide receivers if they so choose. Meanwhile, according to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, tight end Martellus Bennett has been playing with cracked bone and bone chips in his right ankle since suffering the initial injury against the Browns on Oct. 9. Bennett had just one catch for four yards in the 34-16 win over the Texans.

The Steelers dealt with the flu all week, as up to 15 players were reported to have symptoms that limited them in practice during the week. Le’Veon Bell missed practice Wednesday and Thursday for personal reasons before returning Friday.

The Steelers also had their sleep disrupted Saturday night as someone pulled the fire alarm at their hotel.

Chris Price has the complete scouting report while Ryan Hannable has 20 fun facts to consider heading into the game.

Read More: AFC Championship, Malcolm Mitchell, Martellus Bennett, New England Patriots
An ‘anxious’ Tom Brady ready for the ‘big build-up’ to Sunday: ‘Hopefully, we’re up for it’ 01.20.17 at 5:50 pm ET
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FOXBORO — For Tom Brady, there’s a fine line between being nervous and simply being anxious for a big game.

For the 11th time in his career, the Patriots quarterback will be playing Sunday night for a chance to go to the Super Bowl. He is 6-4 as a starter in the previous ten trips.

At Gillette Stadium, Brady has been beaten just once in five previous AFC championship games.

Brady was asked if, at the age of 39, he still feels nervous in the hours and days before taking the field for a chance to go to the Super Bowl.

“No, I think you just get anxious for games, because there is a big build-up to them and you prepare pretty hard,” Brady said. “So, you finally get out there and play, because you feel like you’ve built up the whole week on the practice field and you’ve talked about a lot of situations and you’ve just got to see how they play out. I think it’s just more anxiousness.”

Brady has certainly played his fair share of physical defenses, from the Jets and Bart Scott to the Ravens and Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs to the Broncos and Von Miller. Now, it’s James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Lawrence Timmons and Stephon Tuitt and the Steelers who will be getting after Brady.

If Brady has proven anything this season, he can take a hit and still execute. Even last week, while taking a beating from Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus and throwing a pair of interceptions, he managed to stand in the pocked and fire a pair of touchdown passes.

Is there anything that intimidates Brady?

“I don’t know if intimidate is the word. I think you always go into the game understanding what gets you beat and cautious of the things they do well,” Brady said Friday. “I don’t think it’s necessarily intimidation. I think what helps you win and lose is really good performance and execution and so forth.”

As for his teammates, Brady is not worried about his teammates being mentally ready for Sunday.

“I think a lot of guys know how to get ready to go, and coach does a good job of preparing them,” Brady said. “I think part of the veteran responsibility is to let some of those guys know anything that you might know as a player, or feel as a player going into a big game like this. So, you try to convey those messages over the course of the week of practice, and basically all the time. Wherever you are you try to let other guys know some of your experiences and how to deal with them. But a lot of people ask questions, and some people take the information and retain it and others don’t. So, you just try to do the best you can do.

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Breaking down exactly how Patriots are perfectly-suited to contain Steelers explosive weapons 01.19.17 at 4:31 pm ET
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Jan 14, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; Houston Texans running back Lamar Miller (26) is tackled by New England Patriots middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower (54) during the third quarter in the AFC Divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Dont’a Hightower will be a big part of the Patriots defensive game plan Sunday. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

FOXBORO — Sunday night discipline and fundamentals will meet patience and speed.

The winner will advance to the Super Bowl. The loser will ponder why their approach didn’t work.

The discipline and defensive fundamentals belong to the Patriots defense while patience and speed belong to the Steelers and their explosive offensive weaponry.

The Steelers arguably possess the most feared running back and wide receiver tandem in the NFL in Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. They also have a gunslinger in Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback and a supporting cast in running back DeAngelo Williams, tight end Jesse James and wide receiver Eli Rogers totally capable of spreading a defense and finding weak spots.

The Patriots have built a reputation as the most disciplined defense in the NFL. They’re not spectacular playmakers but they’re rarely out of position and play with a healthy chip on their shoulders, which Logan Ryan pointed out again Thursday. It’s why Jamie Collins was traded and Jabaal Sheard was benched for a week. If you think you’re bigger than the sum of the parts, you will quickly find your way out of town, or – at the very least – the lineup.

What does discipline on defense mean exactly?

“Basically doing your job,” Dont’a Hightower said. “Patience is something than [Bell] does and discipline is something that will kind of counteract that. A lot of times it’s guys who may have an A-gap and they’re looking in the B-gap and they are shedding, trying to get off because of his patience—not having good enough discipline or getting off and causing those areas that he’s looking for. He has such great quickness and bust that’s he’s able to hit that hole and before you know it, it’s seven yards and he’s pulling the pile for another three yards. Those 2-yard runs, 3-yard runs turn into 11-yard runs real quick.”

Devin McCourty, just like he is on the field, was in sync with Hightower in explaining the approach.

“I think it’s going to start with everyone understanding their role and whatever the defensive call is,” McCourty said. “If you’ve got to be at that one spot we’re going to need you there. They’ve got guys on the field that if they catch a ball on the left side of the defense they can easily end up on the right side if they break a couple tackles. So first is just doing your assignment then I think it’s just pursuit. We can’t be out there jogging or not getting to the ball. We’ve got to get everyone to the ball once the ball is in the air.

“Whether it’s Le’Veon Bell running the ball and he’s so patient behind the line you don’t really know where he’s going to end up once he puts his foot in the ground and goes or it’s one of the receivers catching the ball. If it’s [Darrius] Heyward-Bey on a crossing route he has the speed to catch a pass and turn up field and go 70-80 yards. It’s just everyone hustling, [in] pursuit and just really wanting to get it done. We’ve had plays throughout this season where we’ve seen that. Where we have plays where it’s a five-yard gain and we get all 11 guys to a pile. I think we’ve got to have that for 60 minutes all day Sunday.”
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Read More: AFC Championship, Antonio Brown, Devin McCourty, Dont'a Hightower
Mike Tomlin ’embarrassed’ at way he dressed down Patriots 01.18.17 at 1:58 pm ET
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Mike Tomlin addressed Antonio Brown's video on Tuesday. (Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)

Mike Tomlin addressed Antonio Brown’s video on Tuesday. (Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)

With the chance to clarify his untoward comments about the Patriots in his post-game address to his team Sunday night, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said he would take those words back if he knew they were going to be public.

“I was embarrassed by the language,” Tomlin told reporters in a conference call Wednesday. “I take my role as a role model and the platform that we have in the National Football League, very seriously. As a parent, I’m just not into public displays of that type of language. So I was more embarrassed about that element of it, not necessarily the content or the message in the video.”

Did those words express true feelings about the Patriots?

“Man, you’ve could’ve applied that sentiment to any opponent,” Tomlin said. “You could’ve made that tape two weeks earlier [against the Dolphins] and applied it to that opponent. It’s not about the nameless, gray faces that we play for us, it’s about our overall readiness and preparation. And that was the sentiment of the message that was I sending to the guys, not necessarily about the New England Patriots. They just happen to be who we’re playing this week.”

In that video posted by Antonio Brown on Facebook, Tomlin made reference to the fact that the Patriots had head start on the Steelers in their preparation for the AFC championship this Sunday, made more difficult by the fact that the Steelers were playing on the road on Sunday night.

Tomlin was asked if the time change last Sunday has been difficult to compensate for this week.

“It’s not necessarily something to make up,” Tomlin said. “I was just trying to instill a sense of urgency in the group regarding our preparation. And I wanted them to understand that we didn’t have a lot of time to pat ourselves on the back, based on the performance of the last game. We needed to transition, and transition quickly and start the preparation process, whether it was actual preparation or just from a mentality standpoint.”

Back in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Tomlin said that he regrets that Brown posted the video and sent a thinly veiled message to his star receiver that that kind of behavior is the kind of thing that can start a trend of moving from team to team, even for a player of Brown’s caliber.

“I think time always tells those stories,” Tomlin said Wednesday.

Read More: AFC Championship, Antonio Brown, Mike Petraglia, Mike Tomlin
Patriots know 1-on-1 approach won’t work against Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown 01.16.17 at 1:04 pm ET
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Jan 15, 2017; Kansas City, MO, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) runs the ball as Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Vernon Harris (48) defends during the second quarter in the AFC Divisional playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Le’Veon Bell (26) runs the ball as Kansas City defensive back Vernon Harris (48) defends during the second quarter in the AFC Divisional playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium. (Jay Biggerstaff/USA Today Sports)

FOXBORO — Patience, patience, patience.

That’s all you need to know about Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell and his approach to running the football. It’s been on full display all season. The back will wait behind the line of scrimmage for his offensive line to do its work and then pick a spot and go.

On Sunday night, in an 18-16 win over the Chiefs, he had 170 yards on 30 carries employing that approach. He is widely considered the most dangerous back in the game.

“He’s good all of the time. He’s really a hard guy to tackle. He’s got good vision, great patience, and he does a good job,” Bill Belichick said Monday in his conference call.

The Patriots’ coaching staff Monday acknowledged that the counter to Bell’s patience must be team discipline this Sunday. That, and not trying to do it all yourself.

“I think defensively he really forces you to be disciplined,” Belichick said. “You jump out of there too quickly then you open up gaps and open up space. Le’Veon [Bell] has a great burst through the hole. He doesn’t really need long to get through there, runs with good pad level. He’s hard to tackle so if you don’t get a full body on him then he’ll run right through those arm tackles.

“[He] really forces everybody to be sound in their gaps. Getting off and jumping around blocks or trying to get to the hole too quickly just opens up cut-back lanes or stays in the front somewhere and he does a great job of finding it. I mean team defense is the only way to stop it. There’s no one guy that can stop him. You’re going to have to have everybody doing a good job in a number of different areas all the way across the front and then do a good job of tackling.”

Just how important will tackling be?

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Read More: AFC Championship, Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell
Rob Gronkowski apologizes for cramping up: ‘It was freaky that it did’ 01.25.16 at 1:20 am ET
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DENVER — There are lots of physical adjustments to be made playing at altitude in the mile high air.

Rob Gronkowski found that out the hard way in the second half of Sunday’s AFC championship loss to the Broncos.

Early in the third quarter, the Patriots tight end began taking himself out of the game and started gulping large quantities of water on the sidelines. At one point, the Patriots training staff took away his helmet for a brief time before giving it back to him.

Gronkowski battled with this into the fourth quarter before all the water started taking its desired effect.

“Yeah, I was cramping. I was actually just kind of disappointed in myself at that moment,” Gronkowski said. “I don’€™t know exactly why I was cramping. I prepared for this game like I have for every other game with hydration and all that, but it just got to me. I had to fight through it. The trainers did a great job. I had to just pound a couple of bottles of water on the sidelines.”

At one point in the fourth quarter, trainers began rubbing the back of his left leg up and down with a roller as he was stomach-down on the sidelines, taking in oxygen at the same time.

“I felt really full at some point, but I battled back through it,” Gronkowski said. “As an athlete, you just don’€™t want that to happen. I’€™m definitely going to take that consideration down the road to make sure stuff like that doesn’€™t happen again in games, but it just did this time. It was freaky that it did. It didn’€™t happen all year but battled through it, came back and I was fine after I pounded a couple of bottles of water.”

Gronkowski started pounding the water when he came out after being taken down by Aqib Talib on a 31-yard gain. He didn’t return in that series as the Patriots had to settle for 38-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski.

On Dec. 28, Cincinnati nose tackle Geno Atkins, who had been recently diagnosed with sickle cell, had his snaps limited due to the dangers of dehydration at altitude associated with the disease.

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