When the New England Patriots signed restricted free agent Chris Hogan away from the Buffalo Bills on a modest, but still somewhat surprising, three-year $12-million deal this offseason, the transaction did not break the NFL newswires. After all, the 2011 undrafted free agent had not done much of note as a pro, netting a career-high 41 catches in 2014. Hogan had a nice first season in New England but still finished just fourth on the team in targets, only 10 ahead of rookie Malcolm Mitchell.
That lack of pedigree didn't matter on Sunday night when he became the unlikely hero for the AFC champion Patriots.
Chris Hogan finished with nine catches for 180 yards and two scores on 12 targets, the exact same line Falcons All-Pro Julio Jones posted earlier in the day. All of those numbers were team-highs for New England. The raw figures are great on their own, but the NFL's Next Gen Stats really bring Hogan's wildly successful outing into focus.
Back on the 2012 Dolphins season of "Hard Knocks," Hogan earned the nickname 7-11 because then teammate Reggie Bush claimed he was always open in practice. On Sunday night, Hogan reminded us of the skill that once brought him that moniker as a training camp longshot. He averaged a full 4.0 yards of separation from the nearest defender on his 12 targets.
The Steelers inability to hold coverage was a theme of the night in Foxboro. Tom Brady threw just 2.4 percent of his passes into tight windows (less than a yard of separation) during the AFC Championship, the lowest mark of any quarterback this season. The NFL average for a quarterback is 19.4 percent.
Brady threw just 17.9 percent of his regular season passes into tight windows, which was the 10th lowest among passers with at least 200 attempts. So while this wasn't completely out of the norm for the New England offense, to throw just one of 42 passes into tight windows is still remarkable. It not only speaks to Brady's elite ability to dissect a defense and find the open player but also a complete defensive miscalculation by Pittsburgh.
Assisting the Steelers' woes in coverage was their inability to put pressure on the Patriots quarterback. Brady had a time to throw of more than 2.5 seconds on 20 of his 42 passes. He registered a 158.1 passer rating on those throws, which included a 16-yard touchdown to Hogan where he took 4.84 seconds to throw the ball.
Chris Hogan did indeed emerge from Sunday night as the unheralded hero for New England with a sterling performance while routinely getting open. Yet, this was also an underscore of what he was quietly doing all season. Among all receivers who saw 30 or more targets when lined up out wide, Hogan's 3.6 yards of separation was the highest recorded figure.
Bill Belichick and his staff's ability to unearth talent where other organizations cannot remains intact as the team marches on to their seventh Super Bowl appearance in the Belichick-Brady era. The nation will watch on February 5 wondering if Hogan will once again separate himself from the pack as the evening's star, or whether it will be someone else that proves to be the surprise of the 2016 season's biggest game.
Matt Harmon a writer/editor for NFL.com, and the creator of #ReceptionPerception, who you can follow on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB or like on Facebook.