FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — This was not a missed opportunity.
Don’t blame Antonio Brown’s childish video or the pulled hotel fire alarm early Sunday morning which was much ado about nothing.
Don’t blame Mike Tomlin’s week of weak preparation or Keith Butler’s doomed game plan.
Don’t blame dropped passes by Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton that could have made the game closer.
Don’t even blame Le’Veon Bell’s first-quarter groin injury which left the Steelers severely short-handed.
The Steelers could play the New England Patriots 10 more times at Gillette Stadium and wouldn’t win one. The “bleeps” — to use Tomlin’s word from the Brown video — are that much better.
This was a football massacre.
The Patriots’ 36-17 win brought back horrible memories of a past AFC championship game. The way the incomparable Tom Brady picked apart the Steelers’ defense for franchise-record 384 passing yards and three touchdowns reminded me of the great Dan Marino who threw for an AFC championship game-record 421 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-28 win against the Steelers after the 1984 season. I still can see Chuck Noll shaking hands with Dolphins coach Don Shula at midfield afterward, saying, “Wow!”
Brady owns Steelers: The Steelers said the same thing about Brady, who increased his stats to a ridiculous 22 touchdown passes and no interceptions in seven games against a Mike Tomlin defense. He will lead the Patriots against the Atlanta Falcons in Super LI, looking for his fifth Super Bowl title, which would break his tie with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana for most in NFL history.
“He’s no joke,” Mike Mitchell said of Brady. “We expected to play the best. It doesn’t get any better than 12. He is what we thought he was.”
The best of all time?
“I won’t argue with you,” Ben Roethlisberger said.
Young Steelers struggle: I suppose the Steelers offense could have done more to make it a game. Coates dropped a long pass on their first series. Chris Boswell missed an extra point after making six field goals a week earlier against Kansas City. Hamilton dropped a touchdown pass. There were two more red-zone failures, the first after a first-and-goal at the Patriots 1 late in the second quarter, the second after a first-and-goal at the 6 early in the fourth quarter. Hamilton caught an apparent touchdown pass on that fourth-quarter series but stepped out of the back of the end zone before coming back in to make the catch, which is against the rules. Eli Rogers lost a fumble.
During the Steelers’ nine-game winning streak leading into this game, the young players such as Hamilton and Rogers played well, far beyond their years. On this night, the stage seemed a bit too bright for them and Coates.
“We knew we had to play perfect,” David DeCastro said. “We were far from that.”
Bell's loss hurt: Losing Bell hurt. He injured his left groin on the Steelers’ second play of the game. He ended up carrying the ball four more plays but left for good midway through the second quarter.
“I had no burst anymore,” Bell said. “I couldn’t be myself. I felt like I was holding the team back.”
Even if Bell had played and set a third consecutive Steelers postseason record after running for 167 yards against Miami and 170 against Kansas City, it wouldn’t have been enough against Brady. Brady put up 36 points, but it easily could have been 50.
Defense comes up small: The Steelers defense came in allowing the fewest points per game (14) and yards (266) in this postseason. It had 31 sacks during the nine-game winning streak — most in the NFL during that time — and forced 18 turnovers. None of that made Brady blink. He had his 11th 300-yard passing game, extending his NFL postseason record. He had his ninth three-touchdown game, tying Montana for most in NFL postseason history.
When the Patriots beat the Steelers, 27-16, at Heinz Field, they did it by giving the ball to running back LeGarrette Blount, who had 127 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Blount had a quiet game this time, although he did carry just about the entire Steelers defense for an 18-yard gain before scoring a touchdown on a 1-yard run to give New England a 27-9 lead.
Night belonged to Brady: This night belonged to Brady, who completed one splash play after another for gains of 41, 26, 22, 33, 24 and 39 yards. Who needed Rob Gronkowski, the best tight end in NFL history? Wide receivers Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman had huge nights. Hogan had nine catches for a franchise-postseason record 180 yards and two touchdowns, including one on a marvelously executed flea flicker. Edelman had eight catches for 118 yards and one touchdown. Did I mention the stage might have been too bright for some Steelers? It certainly seemed that way for rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis.
“That’s what Tom does,” Roethlisberger said. “He sits back there and picks you apart. He’s the general.”
“We weren’t tight enough in coverage and we didn’t enough consistent pressure on the quarterback,” Tomlin said.
Steelers will watch Pats in Super Bowl: Javon Hargrave sacked Brady on the Patriots’ second series and Davis got him late in the game when Brady was surprisingly still on the field and throwing. And you think Tomlin is the only idiot coach in the league for keeping his stars in after the outcome has been decided? Bill Belichick would have looked like a fool if a big hit by Stephon Tuitt late in the game knocked Brady out of the Super Bowl.
As it is, Brady will be in Houston Feb. 5 for Super Bowl LI. And the Steelers? They will be watching on television.
“I definitely felt like we had the team to do it,” Shazier said. “We just didn’t finish the job.”
They never had a chance.
The bleeps were just too good.