If you could summarize New England quarterback Tom Brady’s career in one sentence, this might be it: he has reached the Super Bowl in seven of his 15 seasons as a starter. (Thanks to Rich Hill of PatsPulpit.com for that reminder.)
New England handled Pittsburgh from start to finish, bolting out to a 10-0 lead and never letting up in a 36-17 win. Viewers got a solid idea of how this game would go on the Patriots’ first possession. First, New England won the coin toss and chose to receive the kickoff, which they almost never do. This spoke to the confidence Coach Bill Belichick had in getting off to a fast start. Secondly, Brady completed his first four passes to four different receivers. Tight end Martellus Bennett gathered in a 12-yarder over the middle. Julian Edelman took a seven-yard crosser and kept going, zipping up the sideline and dance-cutting to the middle for 41 yards. Rookie Malcolm Mitchell caught a five-yard out. Danny Amendola got four yards by the left hash mark. After an uncharacteristic drop by Mitchell, New England had to settle for a Stephen Gostkowski field goal, but the tempo and the tenor of the game were set.
Brady ended up completing 32 of 42 passes (76 percent) for 384 yards (personal playoff best) and three touchdowns, pushing the Patriots to a commanding victory over the Steelers for their second AFC Championship in three years. New England held the visitors to nine points until late in the fourth quarter, dominating the game after halftime with a 16-point third quarter that stretched the lead to 33-9.
In last week’s column, I was, one could say, one-third prescient: “This Sunday, anything could happen. It could be a 44-43 barnburner, a 16-15 defensive struggle, or a 34-6 blowout (though my money would lay with the first option).” Hey, 34-6, 36-17. Who’s keeping track, really? The Patriots found a best-case scenario against a team that Brady typically handles well. In fact, since Coach Mike Tomlin took over the Steelers in 2007, Brady has zero interceptions vs. Pittsburgh.
That begs the question, why did so many commentators pick the Steelers? Was it due to New England’s lackluster performance vs. the Texans? Was it the argument that the home team hadn’t played any great quarterbacks? Not sure, but it’s safe to say that the two best remaining teams made it to the finals.
The Drive for Five continues vs. Atlanta, with what could be a record-breaking point total for a Super Bowl. Should be a fun one.
Hogan Zeroes In: If anyone thought Chris Hogan would lead the Patriots in receiving, raise your hand and don’t you raise your hand you liar. Hogan ended up with nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns. Throughout the night, he received about as much coverage as your average Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. (I promise to cancel that issue, as I’ve gotten old enough where it makes me uncomfortable.) At times, it seemed like either the Steelers underestimated Hogan’s speed or figured someone else would pick him up in their zone. Whatever they were doing, it didn’t work.
The most concise summary of Hogan’s night happened on New England’s second scoring drive, their third possession of the game. Brady found Hogan for four yards at the home team’s 43 on third and one. Next play, Brady audibled, coaxing running back LeGarrette Blount and fullback James Develin to split out, which caused more confusion than a foreign-language version of Inception. Hogan for 26 yards up the left seam. Next play, Hogan for 11 on a curl route. After two Blount runs for four yards total, Brady took the snap, did a couple of Dance Dance Revolution steps to his left, and threw to Hogan in the back of the end zone, wide open as a prairie. That made four catches for 57 yards for the receiver on that drive alone, staking the home team to a 10-0 first-quarter lead. Hogan’s second TD came midway through the second quarter on a flea-flicker for a 17-6 advantage.
By the way, you can watch all game highlights here.
The Un-synch-able Maudlin Brown: Safe to say that Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown wasn’t happy Sunday night. The Patriots focused on shutting down Brown and keeping him out of rhythm. They did a solid job of it, holding the best receiver in the AFC to seven receptions for 77 yards and zero touchdowns. The attention that cornerback Malcolm Butler and safety Devin McCourty paid Brown forced Ben Roethlisberger to seek out other pass-catchers, none of whom seemed up to the task for four full quarters. Eli Rogers did some damage underneath, hauling in six passes for 66 yards, but others seemed to wilt like those flowers that you bought for that thing but of course you forgot them in the car. Sammie Coates missed a bomb down the left sideline on Pittsburgh’s opening drive, then failed to gather in a would-be diving touchdown catch at the end of the third. Cobi Hamilton’s presumed touchdown catch was called back because he accidentally went out of bounds. He also missed a pass in the end zone at the end of the first half. Even Rogers himself fumbled when stripped of the ball by linebacker Kyle Van Noy near the end of the third quarter. Rough day for the young receivers.
Not A “Drop The Mike” Moment: Listen, Tomlin has earned the respect of the league with his coaching. In 10 years in Pittsburgh, he has a 103-57 record and a Super Bowl win. So, I guess the question is, why couldn’t he get his team in a better position to beat New England? Brady has a record of high production vs. the Steelers (6-1 since 2007; 22 TDs, zero INTs); it’s apparent that their zone schemes do not work against him. Afterward, Tomlin got asked a specific question about 2012, where Pittsburgh’s press man coverage seemed to give him trouble. (You can read transcripts of post-game interviews here, courtesy of patriots.com.) The reporter was probably referring to 2011, when New England lost at Pittsburgh, 25-17. Tomlin responded, “We stand by what we did in the game. We just didn’t do it well enough.”
Didn’t do what well enough? Execute a flawed game plan? Seems like a weird, overly political response. Doesn’t seem too tough to say, Yeah, if we could do it over again, we’d probably try to play more press man and blitz their QB up the middle. It’s been talked about in the media this week, but the mantra of “We do what we do” only works if what you do is effective. Otherwise, you’re just Wile E. Coyote convincing yourself that, despite results, you’re a super genius.
The other quote of note on this topic arose from safety Mike Mitchell’s reply to a question about the flea-flicker that Brady converted for Hogan’s second TD. Mitchell said, “It’s a good play. We hadn’t seen it.” Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hadn’t seen it? What about on “Monday Night Football” vs. the Ravens last month? Mitchell added, “We were expecting some type of trick plays,” but he hadn’t seen a flea-flicker? That wasn’t on the docket? Linebacker Bud Dupree said that the home team’s use of no-huddle on offense “caught us off guard” (courtesy Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.) The Pats also used a lot of hurry-up offense vs. Baltimore. In terms of film study, we’re talking about going back a little over a month to watch a game featuring an AFC North Division opponent. They wouldn’t even have to fast-forward through commercials. That apparent lack of preparation just seems odd.
A Run ‘N’ They’re Stalking: The Steelers do deserve praise for their run defense through most of three quarters (a little like fixing a window when your house is underwater, but still). New England did less on the ground than a helium balloon, failing to produce much until they had a comfortable lead. At one point in the third quarter, Blount had carried seven times for three yards. Pittsburgh shot linebackers up the middle, with human ninja star Ryan Shazier compiling seven tackles and loping scythe Lawrence Timmons wreaking his share of havoc with 14 stops. They also did a solid job with one-on-one battles along the line, as avalanche Stephon Tuitt and tsunami Jason Hargrave (five tackles) dropped Blount and Dion Lewis for losses.
That Rush Was Scrum-ptious: With the above paragraph in mind, Blount’s 18-yard run with 3:21 remaining in the third quarter provided the largest surprise of the night and put its signature on the back of this game’s envelope. From the 19, Blount scooted left and fired forward, first making contact with Mitchell at the nine-yard line. He stopped for half a second, seeming to re-adjust his pad level, and started grinding out yards (replay here). No fewer than four Steelers joined the fray at the six, but Blount kept his legs churning. New England’s Mitchell started to push the pile forward from the left side; he was joined by most of the offensive line and a few receivers as two more Steelers stuck their heads into the scrum. This massive man-amoeba undulated to the one-yard line. On the next play, a fired-up Blount went over the goal line, making it 27-9, home team, with 2:44 left in the third.
It’s tough to point to any one play and say, that’s the one that settled this thing, but New England gained palpable momentum out of this run. Van Noy stripped Rogers on Pittsburgh’s next offensive play, leading to the Patriots’ second TD in just over one minute of playing time, a touchdown pass to Edelman.
Finding A Julian The Rough: If not for Hogan’s Model-T-level production, Edelman would be getting a lot more notice. Tom’s typical go-to guy tallied eight catches for 118 yards and one touchdown. He converted a third-and-10 on the flea-flicker drive. (FleaFlicker Drive, by the way, a great title for an independent film about an eccentric Southern woman who swears she has hundreds of hand-written letters from William Faulkner. Will the rest of the town believe her? And, in the end, does that really matter?) He notched about 10 yards-after-catch (YAC) near the sideline in the fourth, on the drive that resulted in his own TD. It was a better-than-average day for a better-than-average receiver.
Valentine Delivered: No bigger series in the game than New England’s goal-line stand at the end of the first half, the home team leading 17-6. Steelers tight end Jesse James appeared to shoot his way in (ugh) for a 20-yard touchdown catch-and-run, but replay showed that safeties Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon got him down at about the half-foot line. No score, but first and goal for Pittsburgh with 1:53 to play in the first half.
On first down, the D-line did their job, with Jabaal Sheard and Trey Flowers slicing in from their right side toward the center. This slant freed up space for linebackers Shea McClellin, Elandon Roberts, and Dont’a Hightower to fill the gaps. (Amazing to watch Roberts and Hightower start the play seven yards deep in the end zone. Dudes built up more momentum than otters down a ski jump.) Chung sprinted in from the defensive left and hustled down the line to help wrap up DeAngelo Williams for a one-yard loss.
Second down and goal from the two. This time, linebacker Roberts hurried up to the line pre-snap and blitzed the offensive left A gap (between the center and guard). A second handoff to Williams. Roberts’ presence seemed to pull some attention from the right side of the O-line. This in turn appeared to force a one-on-one matchup with Patriots tackle Alan Branch, who swatted aside his blocker. Meanwhile, rookie Vincent Valentine catapulted himself through the hole left by the pulling guard and smothered Williams like mole sauce on chicken flautas. Minus-three yards.
Third and goal from the five, a weakly executed pick play to Rogers resulted in an incompletion. The pass had little chance of scoring anyway, as cornerback Eric Rowe was in position to tackle him at the three. Pittsburgh settled for a field goal, leaving New England with a 17-9 lead at the half.
Stand In The Place Where You Live: The Pats had another strong stand early in the fourth, keeping the Steelers out of the end zone on four tries (though they got help from Hamilton’s poorly-placed feet going out of bounds before a would-be TD catch). This didn’t get as much attention because the score was 33-9, but it showed the team’s ability to stay focused throughout the contest. On fourth and goal from the two, Pittsburgh went back to Hamilton on a fade that was broken up by Logan Ryan. Here’s where the injury to running back Le’Veon Bell made a difference, as Williams’ previous two rushes had only netted four yards, making it preferable to try a pass play on fourth down.
The Quick Frown Fox: Just one note on the Fox broadcast of the NFC title game between the Packers and the Falcons. They had comedians Jeff Ross and Rob Riggle face off in a so-called “Roast Battle,” with each representing a team (it really doesn’t matter who roasted whom). This two minutes of screen time contained about as much humor as the beginning of Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” video. I found it disconcerting that these two performers – whose work I typically enjoy, by the way – could feel confident in that material. It said a lot that they had to hire actors to dress up like an engaged crowd. I would have had more fun at the State Department of Health getting a death certificate. I’m linking to the video here. If you can get through it without pausing, groaning, or wincing, you’re a stronger person than I.
Could Be Sharper: Not a bad broadcast by CBS, but, as always, we have a few nits to pick. Let’s start with some replays we would have liked to see.
• With 13:10 left in the second quarter, trainers started looking at Patriots defender Flowers. CBS went straight to commercial and never showed us a replay of what happened to him.
• At the 2:15 mark of the second, Hamilton seemed to mishandle what looked like an easy six points on a 21-yard pass into the end zone with Rowe in coverage. Phil Simms and Jim Nantz called it a drop on the replay, but both camera angles showed the attempted catch from behind, concealing the football from view. These perspectives meant that Hamilton’s torso shielded what, if anything, Rowe’s hand may have done to break up the pass. An end zone shot would have cleared that up.
• Surprising that CBS decided not to replay the first rush attempt of New England’s goal-line stand at the end of the first half. Stopping the Steelers cold on the one-foot line deserved a second look (and third, from the end zone cameras, say).
• Late in the third quarter, Coates dove for a potential touchdown reception but came up empty. As with the Hamilton incompletion, we got replays from basically the same angle as the live shot. The lack of a view from the end zone made it difficult to tell how close Coates came to getting his hands around the football.
• At 10:36 of the fourth quarter, Edelman complained about getting held after a third-down incompletion (the pass was just out of his reach). Did he have a legitimate argument? Sure. Or not. We don’t know.
• With 7:18 remaining in the game, Steelers defender James Harrison was called offsides, with the referee adding that he didn’t get off the field in time. Note to CBS and all NFL broadcasters: few things in football are more entertaining than watching replay of a 12th defender failing to get to the sideline before the snap. It is to an NFL game what a “Yakety Sax” chase sequence was to “Benny Hill.”
Now, for the commentator-based miscues…
• On the replay of Williams’ rushing TD, Simms said, “It’s gonna be close.” I couldn’t see anything close about the play. Williams may have lost control of the ball after it was already halfway across the end line. This seemed like a situation where the commercial was coming up and Simms felt like he had to say something. He would have been better off with “Football’s neat-o. We’ll be right back!”
• Nantz said that Chris Boswell’s PAT miss was his first of the year, then did that thing when you know someone is yelling into his earpiece, correcting himself with a hurried, “Second time this post-season!”
• During Coates’ diving reception attempt mentioned above, Simms was talking about the Rutgers-Foxboro connection and didn’t really discuss the replay. Would have helped if he could have put the Scarlet Knights aside for 10 seconds to comment on how close Coates came to six points.
• Before the half, Simms said that the story of the game was Brady’s third-down conversion rate, completely ignoring the fact that Roethlisberger (16 of 22, 136 yards) wasn’t exactly soiling the sheets.
• Way, way too much confusion on the challenge to the Brady fumble early in the third quarter. Nothing in the replay was going to overturn the call of no clear recovery by Pittsburgh. Instead, Simms and Nantz went back and forth, at first not even sure if Tomlin could challenge it. A straightforward play that became much less so. Might have helped to put Tracy Wolfson on the case. Not always sure if sideline reporters are necessary, but Wolfson makes a solid case for their existence.
And, as always, a couple of kudos: After Brady opened the game four-for-four, Simms said, “I’m not surprised by this at all,” and he had earned that comment in his pre-game preview, pointing out that Brady loved to face the Steelers’ defense, hit short passes against zone, and let his receivers pile up YAC. Also, kudos to CBS for staying in Foxboro and avoiding going to commercial during the home team’s goal-line stand at the end of the first half. That decision really helped viewers monitor the pulse of the game and made for a better home experience.
On The Hunt: I miss the old Lamar Hunt Trophy for the AFC Championship, and I don’t believe I’m alone. Take a look at this photo of Coach Belichick holding the trophy in 2005. He’s carrying it the way a librarian would handle the Gutenberg Bible. (Keep your Police Academy jokes to yourself.) Compare that to his actions at the post-game ceremony Sunday night, where Belichick grabbed the new trophy with all the reverence of swiping a six-pack of ‘Gansett off a shelf. The old one had heft and a sense of significance. The new one has a Christmas ornament vibe. Like, a nice ornament that your cousin’s second wife got you because she didn’t really know you yet, but you know what I mean.
Jones Jet: Great special teams day from Jonathan Jones. He made the tackle on New England’s first kickoff. He had a gasp-inducing hit at the 15-yard line on a kickoff later in the first quarter (with help from Nate Ebner). He also made a shoestring tackle with 10:30 remaining in the game, helping punter Ryan Allen net 58 yards. The undrafted rookie has continued to make his case for permanent status on the game-day roster.
You Goth To Be Kidding: People should know when they are conquered. Look, I get the whole “never give up” ideal, but Tomlin calling a timeout with 2:44 left in the game accomplished what, exactly? They were down four scores. They didn’t have the ball. All they did was buy more time for their offense to sit on the bench and stare into the void, as if they were auditioning for a community theater version of Christopher Walken’s role in The Deer Hunter. Again, I get it: keep fighting. But also, figure out when to call it a day.
King Kong Doesn’t Have A Darn Thing On This Guy Right Here: Okay, so CBS is going to take a shot at “Training Day,” with Bill Paxton in the Denzel Washington role. Hmph. Mixed reaction to this. While it seems like a solid idea to bring a gritty cop drama to the small screen, the trailer shows us the shortcomings of this venture. I enjoy Paxton as an actor, and highly recommend watching his turn as a small town police chief in One False Move. Still, when he’s stuck with lines like “You wanna fight monsters, Kyle? Then you sure as hell better be willing to become one yourself,” a Nietzschean reference for prime time that he makes right after a Wizard of Oz allusion, it’s hard to take what’s supposed to be a serious role all that seriously.
Three other aspects of the show won’t help: the lack of harsh language allowed (probably a few “Let’s get those motherflippers!” et al); the perceived glib manner with which Paxton’s character breaks the law (whereas Washington went about his tasks with steely determination); and the newcomer actor (Justin Cornwell) as trainee, who will have a tough time living up to the earnestness that Ethan Hawke displayed in the movie.
Sometimes casting doesn’t work. You’re not going to see Denzel Washington in a remake of the “Fish Heads” video.
Also on CBS? Apparently a show where someone asks, “You guys were aroused, right?” Seems unnecessary – even desperate – for a halftime sitcom promo, CBS. Maybe funny in context of the show (probably not), but not something I want my child – or, frankly, any child – to hear while watching a football game in early prime time. I know I sound prudish, but to hell with it: save your clumsy sex comments for your sitcoms and keep them away from football when a younger demographic might be watching.
Fields Of Fire: I touched upon this subject after viewing Rob Gronkowski ads post back injury. At what point do you pull an ad involving a player who’s not playing anymore? This must have been a tough call with Aaron Rodgers’ State Farm commercial, because before this past Sunday he was playing like a cartoon character, avoiding falling from great heights because he wasn’t bothering to look down and realize he was walking on air. When the ad in question has his receiver proclaiming his stuff is on fire, and it ends with everything he owns literally going up in flames, maybe it’s not a good look after a rough loss. Something to think about, State Farm people.
Have A Great Fall: That Turbotax Humpty Dumpty ad is a bit too realistic, no? When all the king’s men rush to Humpty’s aid, we see that he has giant, real human eyes searching frantically for help as he coughs up yolk blood. It’s like Mother Goose meets Reservoir Dogs. Plus, he falls because he’s doing his taxes on his phone. They should have an ad when a twenty-something does his taxes while driving. You can hurt yourself using our product! Try it!
The Rabid And The Hair: Boy, Duracell really went all-in on the ear hair ad. Their point is that, if you qualify as hirsute in the aural area, you can’t trust all of your friends and co-workers to avoid obsessing over it, but you can trust Duracell batteries to make sure your hair trimmer works. This is yet another commercial where I would have loved to attend the pitch meeting.
“Well, we’ve polled our customers, and an inordinate amount of them have disgusting amounts of ear hair. Like, freakish. So, let’s remind them of that and how they feel ostracized!”
The irony of this off-putting idea arises from the fact that my first thought for an alternative campaign was showing the importance of batteries in children’s toys. Hey, look: they’ve already done this. “Duracell Express Saves Christmas” is a 90-second mini-doc about a Christmas Eve service where Duracell employees hand-delivered “one ton” of batteries throughout the Midwest. How many batteries are in a ton? Who cares? This could have easily been cut up into a couple of 30-second spots, because no god damn ear hair.
Mother of Pearl. Do I have to do everything for you ad people?
Bah-Da-Bah-BAH-Bah, I’m Fine With It: Ending our ad criticism on a far sweeter note, I’m a fan of the young woman in the McCafé commercial, not just for the fact that she looks lovely, but because she’s a good enough actor to almost convince me she’s really drinking coffee and not just pretending to sip from an empty cup. The fact that actors drink air out of coffee cups – and, more often than not, look like it – is a slap in the face to viewers and to the precise object work of the late, great Jerry Orbach, who would actually take the lid off the cup and blow on phantom coffee before leaning in for a tentative sip. Dedication, my friends.
The Patriots joined the NFL in 1970 during the AFL/NFL merger. From 1970 to 2000, the franchise played in two Super Bowls, losing both. From 2001 to 2015, New England made six Super Bowls, winning four. Now they’re back in the big game. It’s a pretty good time to be a Patriots fan. Some local media don’t seem to appreciate this era. (I wouldn’t be surprised if, should New England beat Atlanta, The Boston Globe headline will read “Pats Win, But Repeat Unlikely”). Don’t click on them. Do not feed the bears, and maybe they’ll stop coming around and picking through the garbage.
In the meantime, some of the better stuff to review: I think Chad Finn is one of the best writers in sports right now. I haven’t subscribed to the Globe yet, but if I do, it will be because of him. Mike Reiss of ESPN.com is quintessential reading for his consistent, straightforward, up-to-the-minute info. I’m always intrigued with how Chris Price takes more obscure bits of information and provides original views of how the team works (like the obsession he and I share regarding the Patriots and 3-cone drill prowess). Speaking of angles, Mark Daniels of The Providence Journal deserves a look for the creative ways he gets stories out of subjects that are difficult to cover (he’s constantly talking to the people around those players whose one-on-one interviews can prove elusive). And hats off to the CSNNE.com triumvirate of Tom E. Curran, Mike Giardi, and Phil Perry for their insight and entertaining video posts, as well as their podcasts “Quick Slants” and “The Ex-Pats Podcast” that Giardi usually hosts with Dan Koppen and Jerod Mayo.
For radio, it’s worth repeating that Price’s NFL Sunday on WEEI with Pete Shepphard and Jerry Thornton is the best program on that station. Informative, fast, and funny, while avoiding those brain-dead moments that can make your face scrunch up with exasperation. It’s on this week. Price is off to Houston, which will make for intriguing listening considering where the Shepphard/Thornton dynamic might travel.
Next week, some notes on this Saturday’s Senior Bowl and how it might apply to the Pats (the draft is a mere three months away, after all). In the meantime, you can check out last year’s column on how Super Bowl winners in this century have always needed some luck. Enjoy the bye week.
Chris Warner is fighting off what is apparently a lighter version of the flu, which is like having a first-grader instead of Stephen Gostkowski kicking you in the figs: brutally uncomfortable, yet escaping a much, much worse fate. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @cwarn89.