FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — 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 seventh consecutive AFC championship game.
The Patriots 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.
Chris Hogan was his main weapon. 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.
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.
Pittsburgh (13-6) lost star running back Le’Veon Bell late in the first quarter to a groin injury. It didn’t seem to matter much in a record 16th conference title match for the Steelers, who made mistakes in every facet of the game. 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.
Hogan’s second touchdown came on a flea-flicker and he easily beat safety Mike Mitchell to the corner of the end zone. At that point, Hogan had seven catches for 117 yards and the first multi-touchdown game of his four-year career.
His first score made it 10-0 and came after Brady could have taken a nap before throwing, a common occurrence against a nonexistent pass rush. Hogan was all alone in the back of the end zone for the 16-yard score.
Pittsburgh had drawn to 10-6 on DeAngelo Williams’ 5-yard run to cap an 84-yard drive. Veteran Williams is a nice security blanket in the backfield, though he’s no Bell these days.
Still, he contributed on a 70-yard drive toward the end of the second quarter that appeared to be capped by Jesse James’ TD reception. But video review showed James down at the 1, and the Steelers couldn’t get into the end zone, Chris Boswell connecting for a 23-yard field goal.
The Steelers never threatened to get back into it. LeGarrette Blount punctuated the romp with a bruising 18-yard run on which he carried nearly the entire Pittsburgh defense with him. He then scored from the 1.
By the end, the crowd was chanting “Where is Roger?” and celebrating yet another Super Bowl trip for the Patriots.
Stephen Gostkowski’s 31-yard field goal to open the scoring set a franchise record with 27, surpassing Adam Vinatieri’s 26. Gostkowski is fourth all-time. He made a 47-yarder in the third quarter, a 26-yarder in the fourth, but he missed an extra point.
Boswell, who set an NFL mark with six field goals in the Steelers’ 18-16 win at Kansas City last week, missed an extra point wide left and made a 23-yard kick.
Steelers: Bell’s early departure left him with 20 yards on six carries and no receptions.
Patriots: DB Nate Ebner left with a head injury.
After winning the AFC East with the conference’s top record, New England defeated the Texans 34-16 and the Steelers to reach the Super Bowl. They will take on Atlanta, which beat Green Bay 44-21 for the NFC crown. Super Bowl 51 will be in Houston on Feb. 5; New England won the 2002 and 2005 Super Bowls after beating Pittsburgh for the AFC championship.
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL