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Patriots shred Steelers, advance to ninth Super Bowl

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The New England Patriots will become the first organization to play in nine Super Bowls after Sunday's convincing 36-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. Here's what we learned:

1. It's safe to say Bill Belichick and Tom Brady own the Steelers. While Houston's defense harassed Brady into his worst performance of the season last week, Pittsburgh failed to generate a pass rush against a clicking New England aerial attack that succeeded with timely misdirection and play-action calls courtesy of master coordinator Josh McDaniels. Brady picked Keith Butler's zone defense apart, taking particular advantage of ill communication and poor coverage on Chris Hogan. He finished with 384 passing yards with three touchdowns, tying Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner for the most postseason performances with at least 350 yards and three scores.

Since Mike Tomlin's Pittsburgh arrival in 2007, Brady boasts a staggering 22:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a passer rating near 130.0 against the Steelers -- his best numbers versus any head coach. The Belichick-Brady duo will make their seventh Super Bowl appearance with New England, the most by any head coach and quarterback in NFL history. By the time the final whistle blows in Super Bowl LI, Brady will have been under center in 14 percent of all Super Bowls since the inaugural NFL-AFL championship in January 1967.

2. The Steelers' game plan was scattered to the winds once superstar running back Le'Veon Bell went down with a groin injury late in the first quarter. Although veteran backup DeAngelo Williams promptly narrowed New England's lead to 10-6 with a second-quarter touchdown, Ben Roethlisberger simply didn't have the firepower to stand toe-to-toe with Brady absent Bell's irreplaceable presence in the passing game. Malcolm Butler played excellent coverage on Antonio Brown for the second consecutive matchup, forcing Roethlisberger to rely too heavily upon a revolving door of unproven second fiddles.

3. As much credit as Belichick receives as the game's most brilliant strategist, he also has the equivalent of a doctoral degree in team building. He knows it's not the best 53 players, but the right 53. After watching Hogan go underutilized in Miami and Buffalo, the Patriots' braintrust plucked him from their division rivals and inserted him into the starting lineup opposite Julian Edelman. Hogan matched the numbers posted by Julio Jones in a dominant performance earlier in the day, setting a franchise postseason record with 180 yards and a pair of touchdowns on nine catches. Hogan was too often left wide open, burning Pittsburgh's soft zone coverage for chunk plays of 16, 22, 24, 26 and 39 yards.

4. Even without the benefit of Bell's presence for the majority of game, Roethlisberger played much better than his numbers would suggest. The Steelers might have remained competitive well into the second half if not for dispiriting drops by Sammie Coates, Cobi Hamilton and Jesse James. They also suffered from an Eli Rogers fumble and James' inability to get the final few inches needed for a touchdown at the end of the second quarter. The Patriots clamped down at the goal line, forcing a field goal in a key situation. "It would have been significant if we had been able to get a touchdown," Tomlin acknowledged to CBS entering halftime.

5. As impressive as Pittsburgh's defense has been for the past two months, the concern was that they were never tested by a great quarterback. After two quarters, Tomlin conceded to Westwood One's Ross Tucker that his young defensive backs were "scatterbrained" at times versus Brady. As impressive as the Steelers' run defense was on Sunday, the secondary hemorrhaged big plays to Hogan and Edelman, who combined for 298 yards and three touchdowns on 17 receptions.

6. The Patriots defense, on the other hand, came up with game-altering plays, holding the Steelers to nine points for the first 50 minutes. The goal-line stand preserved a commanding lead at halftime. At one point in the third quarter, Hogan had more receiving yards than Roethlisberger managed as a passer. Unsung trade-deadline acquisition Kyle Van Noy forced the Rodgers fumble shortly thereafter, the secondary virtually erased Brown and the run defense clamped down on Williams in the final 30 minutes. In addition to boasting the No. 1 scoring defense, Belichick's troops are also the best tackling unit.

7. After suffering through a slew of postseason blowouts, we will be treated to a gem of a Super Bowl matchup. Led by the MVP favorite and a magical play-caller, the Falcons' loaded offense has been flirting with juggernaut status for four months, peaking in January. The Patriots have not trailed in a game since Week 12 -- the longest stretch by any team in over a decade. Since Brady's Week 5 return, they lead the league in won-loss record (13-1), point differential (plus-208) and scoring defense (15.9). Can one surging team run away from the other, or will this shootout come down to the wire? Will the Falcons hoist their first Lombardi Trophy? Will Brady cement his legend as the greatest of all time? We'll have those answers and more in two weeks.

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