FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Tom Brady redemption tour is headed to the Super Bowl.
After beginning the 2016 season suspended for four games for his role in the “Deflategate” scandal, the New England quarterback relentlessly carried the Patriots to an unprecedented ninth appearance in the title game, and his seventh.
Brady threw for a franchise playoff-best 384 yards and three touchdowns in a 36-17 rout of the helpless Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday in New England’s sixth consecutive AFC championship game.
The Patriots, who have won nine in a row, are early 3-point favorites heading to face Atlanta in two weeks in Houston, seeking their fifth NFL title with Brady at quarterback and Bill Belichick as coach. Belichick’s seventh appearance in a Super Bowl will be a record for a head coach.
Brady was banned by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell when New England (16-2) went 3-1 to open the schedule.
Since his return in Week 5, the only defeat came at home to Seattle, and Brady, 39, had one of the best seasons of a Hall of Fame-caliber career.
He punctuated that in dreary weather similar to the 2014 conference title game that precipitated the deflated footballs investigation by flattening Pittsburgh’s secondary.
“This is my motivation right here, all these fellas in front of me, these guys,” Brady said, pointing to his teammates and ignoring mentions of “Deflategate.” ‘’The boys showed up to play today.”
Brady’s main weapon was Chris Hogan. The previously unheralded receiver found open spaces everywhere on the field against a leaky secondary. Hogan caught nine balls for 180 yards and two scores.
“It’s been a long journey, but I’ve worked really hard to get to this point,” said the product of Monmouth — yes, Monmouth. “I couldn’t be happier to get to be a part of this thing, this team — this whole thing.”
Hogan started his college career as a lacrosse player at Penn State.
Top wideout Julian Edelman added eight receptions for 118 yards and a touchdown as Brady tied Joe Montana’s playoff record with nine three-TD passing performances. Brady also had his 11th 300-yard postseason game, extending his NFL record, completing 32 of 42 throws.
“We won a lot of different ways under a lot of different circumstances,” Brady said. “Mental toughness is what it is all about and this team has got it. We’ll see if we can write the perfect ending.”
Brady had definitely earned the respect of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
“There’s a reason he’s one of the best to ever play the game. That’s why we have respect for him,” Roethlisberger said. “We know, coming into this environment what we were up against. That’s why we needed to play a near flawless game and we didn’t.”
Roethlisberger completed 31 of 47 passes for 314 yards and a touchdown, but he also threw a fourth-quarter interception when the Steelers were already struggling to mount a comeback. He wasn’t helped by dropped passes by Sammie Coates, Cobi Hamilton and Roosevelt Nix — all first- or second-year players.
“At times, it almost felt like it was too big for some of the young guys,” Roethlisberger said. “Sometimes it’s just one play here and one play there. Tonight we didn’t make those plays. Was it too big? … I don’t know. We need to make every single play in a game like this against an opponent like this.”
The ending for Pittsburgh (13-6) was anything but perfect. It lost star running back Le’Veon Bell late in the first quarter to a groin injury.
That didn’t seem to matter much in a record 16th conference title match for the Steelers, who made mistakes in every facet of Sunday’s game. The 19-point loss ended their nine-game winning streak
The franchise that has won the most Super Bowls, six, and the most postseason games, 36, never seemed likely to challenge in the misty rain.
“We’ve got to be capable of overcoming those things,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “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 in 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 and so forth. We didn’t get a lot accomplished tonight.”
By the end, the crowd was chanting “Where is Roger?” and celebrating yet another Super Bowl trip for the Patriots.
Soon after, tight end Martellus Bennett was boogeying with the cheerleaders, pompoms in hand , and owner Robert Kraft was accepting the Lamar Hunt Trophy.
“For a number of reasons, all of you in this stadium understand how big this win was,” Kraft said. “And we have to go to Houston and win one more.”