Mike Tomlin reminded the media this week that the Patriots had never gone through his Steelers to get to the Super Bowl. Scratch that.
The Patriots beat the Steelers in the AFC Championship, 36-17, in a game that saw the Steelers, again, unable to capitalize on multiple trips to the red zone. For the third time since 2001, New England topped Pittsburgh in the AFC title game, qualifying for their ninth Super Bowl in franchise history, eclipsing the record they previously shared with the Steelers.
Tom Brady torched the Steelers defense, racking up 384 yards on 32-of-42 passing, with three scores. Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t bad, throwing for 314 yards on 31-of-47 that included a few drops, a lazy pick after the game had long been decided, and a cosmetic touchdown pass to Cobi Hamilton well after that in garbage time.
The Patriots game-planned to take Antonio Brown out of the contest, limiting him to seven catches for just 77 yards. Unfortunately for the Steelers, he wasn’t the only one of the Killer B’s to be a non factor on Sunday.
The game turned when Le’Veon Bell went out with a groin injury in the first half, unable to contribute much after just six carries for just 20 yards. Bell wasn’t on the field during the Steelers’ goal line failure near the end of the first half, then after a single snap in the second half, didn’t feature the rest of the game.
“We’ve got to be capable of overcoming those things,” Tomlin told CBS Sports reporter Jay Feely after the game. “Injuries and so forth are part of the game. The reality is, we didn’t make enough plays in any of the three phases. The game kind of unfolded the way they would like it to as opposed to the way we would like it to, not only in score, but in style of play. We didn’t get a lot accomplished tonight.”
DeAngelo Williams did a solid job in Bell’s absence, catching seven balls for 51 yards and adding another 34 yards on just 14 carries, but on that late second-quarter drive, he was not only unable to reach the end zone on two tries, he lost yards on both attempts, forcing the Steelers into a third-and-goal from the five yard line, where Roethlisberger couldn’t complete a pass to Eli Rogers, settling instead for a field goal when they really, really needed a touchdown to keep pace.
The Patriots took the lead early and really never looked back. They got out to a 10-0 lead before Williams scored on a five-yard run to give Pittsburgh a fighting chance, but Chris Hogan seemed unaccounted for the entire first half, racking up 117 yards and two touchdowns on seven catches, including a 34-yard flea-flicker from Brady.
Hogan finished with nine grabs for 180 yards — a Patriots record — while Julian Edelman added 118 yards and a score on eight catches.
It was a tall task for the Steelers to beat the Patriots in New England in the playoffs. Under Belichick, the Patriots are now 17-2 at Gillette Stadium in the postseason. But to accomplish the goal on Sunday without Bell in the lineup proved too much to ask.
And yet, the bigger issue was the Steelers’ secondary, which was dreadful against Brady and the Patriots’ offense. Let’s be honest, these are not world-class receivers he’s playing with, but they were open by five or ten yards all night.
“We weren’t tight enough in coverage,” Tomlin told CBS. “We didn’t get enough consistent pressure in the interior of the pocket. In combination, that created the outcome in terms of performance.”
The Steelers defense had seemed to fix itself after a mid-season wobble, but they were as bad as they could have possibly been against the Patriots offense in the AFC title game. There was little pressure on Brady after the first quarter, finishing the game with just two sacks and no turnovers, while giving up more than 400 yards of offense. The front seven wasn’t great, but the secondary proved it’s a primary concern in the off-season.
The Steelers had a good year, and they got further than many expected back when they were 4-5 and scuffling around their bye week. But this was a Super-Bowl caliber offense and a defense that held together long enough to get them this far. They were never going to beat New England unless they got to Brady and forced turnovers or won in a shootout.
A shootout, this wasn’t. Not without a healthy Bell. And not when the Patriots shut down Brown.