The play that secured the New England Patriots’ passage into the Super Bowl, that repudiated hints of their vulnerability and punctuated a season-long transformation, occurred in the second quarter Sunday.
An entire half — and then some — remained in the AFC championship game, but the frothing fans at Gillette Stadium could sense the moment, and so could the Patriots, who, victory after victory, ever since their last defeat 10 weeks ago, have been asked to defend, well, their defence.
Commanded by Tom Brady, the Patriots' offence remained as imperious as ever, riddling the Pittsburgh Steelers for three touchdown passes in a 36-17 victory. His precision escorted New England into a record ninth Super Bowl — the team's seventh with him at quarterback and its third in the past six seasons.
Chris Hogan, a former lacrosse star nicknamed 7-Eleven (you know, because he’s always open), amassed 180 receiving yards and two touchdowns, reinforcing New England’s reputation for maximizing distressed assets.
The pivotal play, though, arrived long before the game had devolved into a romp, and before nearly 70,000 fans chanted Brady’s name and crooned along to Bon Jovi.
It came on second down at the New England 2-yard line.
Not since losing to Russell Wilson and Seattle on November 13th had the Patriots faced a quarterback of Ben Roethlisberger's caliber, or an offense as dangerous as multidimensional as Pittsburgh's.
“We heard we weren’t tested all year,” safety Duron Harmon said.
The blemish on a defensive résumé that included the NFL’s fewest points allowed was that New England had conquered quarterbacks of meager stock — Bryce Petty, Brock Osweiler, Jared Goff. Here late in the second quarter, though, was Roethlisberger, who assumed that he had drawn Pittsburgh tighter — New England led by 17-6 at the time — with a touchdown to Jesse James that would be overruled by video review.
Still, first-and-goal at the New England 1.
“That yard is so small,” Harmon said. “You would think the Pittsburgh Steelers would be able to get that yard.”
Stuffed for a loss on first down, DeAngelo Williams — playing in place of the star running back Le’Veon Bell, who sustained an early groin injury — took the handoff again on second. Before he could even take a step, a 320-pound rookie defensive lineman named Vincent Valentine yanked Williams to the ground for a 3-yard loss.
The stop, which preceded a Roethlisberger incompletion, asserted the Patriots’ primacy. It pushed Pittsburgh into a passing situation. It forced a field goal — the Steelers’ final points until scoring a touchdown with three minutes 36 seconds left. They trailed by 36-17.
“At some point,” cornerback Logan Ryan said, “we just want to try to earn the respect when it’s not given.”
It is only appropriate, then, that New England's next, and final, challenge involves striving to contain the Atlanta Falcons, who have scored 80 points the last two weeks, on February 5th in Houston. The same Falcons who, after thrashing both Wilson and Aaron Rodgers, have now ousted two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks this month.
Next up for Atlanta is a third decorated quarterback: Brady, who on Sunday set a franchise postseason record by throwing for 384 yards and completed throws to nine receivers, none named Rob Gronkowski.
Gronkowski, New England’s superlative tight end, has missed seven straight games with a back injury that required surgery, and he will be unavailable for the Super Bowl. But the team has an uncanny knack for minimising absences, whether it is Gronkowski’s or those of the Pro Bowl linebackers Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, both dumped within the last 10 months.
The Patriots are football’s metronome, always scoring, winning, celebrating. After the final second ticked off, tight end Martellus Bennett exchanged handshakes and hugs and then ran around the field, a personal victory lap. He danced with cheerleaders and made snow angels with his daughter amid the red and blue confetti.
In the locker room, he vowed to tease his brother, Michael, a Seahawks defensive lineman, over FaceTime; extolled the beauty and music of his hometown, Houston; and said he intended to go home and bake his favorite cake — yellow with chocolate icing — and write “You’re Awesome” on it.
“I’ll probably eat the whole thing and regret it tomorrow, because I’ve got to make sure I make weight,” Bennett said.
Across the way stood Ryan, a connoisseur of throwback jerseys. His collection includes Allen Iverson and Ken Griffey Jr. models, but for Sunday he wore an old-school Nolan Ryan No. 34 Houston Astros top — and not just because of the shared surname.
“Definitely not a coincidence,” Ryan said. “I gave it some thought.”
Even down to their wardrobes the Patriots are calculated. They knew that the departures of Jones and Collins would not weaken them. They knew that those players’ departures would allow new or younger players to come in and thrive, even if some early results suggested otherwise.
Pittsburgh related to the Patriots, confronting similar skepticism about its defence — that it, too, remained untested.
Tested plenty on Sunday, the Steelers forced two punts — and no turnovers — on New England’s first 10 drives. It is as inevitable as sunset, Brady pillaging the Mike Tomlin-coached Steelers. In seven starts against them, he has now thrown 22 touchdowns without an interception, belittling their zone defence.
“Yeah, he ripped us apart,” Steelers defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt said.
Brady does not discriminate. He humiliates rookies. He humiliates veterans. On his first touchdown pass, bungled coverage left Hogan open in the back of the end zone. On his second, Brady fooled the entire defense with a flea-flicker, zipping a 34-yarder to Hogan.
That increased New England’s advantage to 17-6, and oddly enough, its leads were jeopardized more with Bell on the sideline. Missing most of Pittsburgh’s final two series before halftime (and all in the second half), Bell watched as Williams accounted for 51 yards and a touchdown — but failed to slip into the end zone when the Steelers most needed it.
The Steelers trailed by 17-9 at halftime, and that was as close as they got to New England, which fattened its lead by scoring 16 points on its three third-quarter drives. After the second touchdown, a 10-yard reception by Julian Edelman, the Patriots radio announcer Scott Zolak held out a sign from his booth that read, “Where’s Roger?”
The reference was to the commissioner, Roger Goodell, who has not visited Gillette since meting out a punishment for Brady, upheld after a long court battle, for the scandal known as Deflategate. “Oh yeah, where is he?” Bennett said. “He’s like Waldo right now. He don’t want to come here.”
The Patriots noticed that Goodell was spending Championship Sunday in Atlanta. Asked if a title would be any more satisfying this season, offensive tackle Nate Solder smiled widely before saying he did not know. The owner Robert K. Kraft, still seething, alluded to his fury during the Lamar Hunt Trophy presentation, when he said that “all of you in this stadium understand how big this win was.”
In two weeks, New England’s tour of revenge reaches its last stop, NRG Stadium in Houston, where Goodell will be in attendance, with no choice but to watch Brady, a maestro as always, and a defence overlooked and discounted no longer.