The game was won by Tuesday, when coach Bill Belichick and his staff put the finishing touches on yet another Patriots game plan that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had no answer for. Home-field advantage is nice, but there is no advantage greater than being more prepared than your opponent. After seven conference titles in the last 16 years, Belichick keeps his group in line, one step ahead of the rest of the AFC.
From the very first drive Sunday, Belichick and Tom Brady set out to make Pittsburgh's young secondary uncomfortable. New England opened the game in hyperspeed, often snapping the ball with more than 25 seconds left on the play clock, forcing the youngsters in the Steelers' secondary to make quick decisions under pressure unlike any they've ever experienced -- and they crumbled.
"It's something we'd seen on film that was going to work against them," offensive tackle Nate Solder explained of the up-tempo approach, which carried over into the second half. "But it only works if you're making completions."
No matter how many Steelers dropped back in coverage, Brady found receivers wide open. Tomlin told Ross Tucker on Westwood One at halftime that his young guys were "scatterbrained." The Patriots were 9 of 12 on third down through the first three quarters because Brady knew the Steelers' zone defense better than the Steelers did. Brady focused on Chris Hogan and Edelman because they were the open ones.
"No one cares who gets the ball," tight end Martellus Bennett said. "You may not get any passes, I don't give a s---. I just want to win."
Tomlin and his staff were outclassed, appearing to coach against the Patriots team they saw in Week 7. The Steelers did a great job shutting down New England's running game, unlike in that October contest. But no coach is better at adjusting on the fly than Belichick, so the Patriots gave up on the run early.
The Steelers, on the other hand, stubbornly stayed in their soft zone pass defense all night. The Steelers coaches didn't ask their cornerbacks to press the line of scrimmage to disrupt New England's receivers early in their routes. Giving Brady the same looks repeatedly over 60 minutes is asking for a slow death. The only constant in a Belichick game plan is constant change.
The last few times the Steelers faced New England, Belichick left his best cornerback, Malcolm Butler, to fend with Antonio Brown in man coverage. This time, Belichick sent his two best defensive backs at Brown much of the night, with safety Devin McCourty over the top. During one goal-line sequence, the Patriots had three defenders on Brown's side of the field with no other receiver in the area. The Patriots were determined to make young receivers Cobi Hamilton and Sammie Coates beat them on the outside, and they couldn't oblige.
Brown didn't have a play over 20 yards, again proving the cliche that Belichick takes away an opponent's best weapon. Then again, the Patriots didn't have to worry about running back Le'Veon Bell after he left the game in the first quarter with a groin injury. Bell and backup DeAngelo Williams wound up with only 54 rushing yards on 20 total carries.
"We didn't do a good enough job or a quick enough job adapting to the circumstance," Tomlin said.
Failing to adapt is not a criticism you hear often of Belichick, who had his cake and ate up the Steelers' offensive game plan. The Patriots often kept five defenders on the line of scrimmage to stop the run, but they also kept five or six defensive backs on the field nearly the entire game to prevent big plays.
While Tomlin failed to understand the game flow, choosing to punt early in the second half rather than going for it on fourth down, Brady and Belichick were in attack mode all night.
"When you get in a game with [Brady], there's no better way to say it: He's a stone-cold killer. He's all business. Very confident. It's fun to be around," Solder said.
Brady had so much fun throwing for 384 yards and three touchdowns that he had to be reminded after the game of his second touchdown toss to Hogan, a one-time afterthought in Buffalo who finished this season tied for the NFL lead in yards per catch.
"Oh, the flea flicker," Brady said. "How could I forget that? It was just a great call. They were a little winded, I thought."
That 34-yard touchdown -- which came in response to Pittsburgh's first touchdown -- neatly summarizes the difference in these coaching staffs. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels knew Steelers safety Mike Mitchell gets overaggressive in run defense, and he bit hard on the play. He knew the Pittsburgh defense was sucking wind due to New England's hurry-up approach.
Mitchell, meanwhile, told reporters that the flea flicker wasn't part of the team's film study this week. That's despite the Patriotsusing the same play against Baltimore in December. That's despite the Patriots famously using a similar flea flicker to expose Tomlin's secondary way back in 2007, during his first season as Steelers head coach. It's hard to imagine the Patriots' staff failing to coach their players up to that possibility.
Tomlin noted earlier in the week that the Patriots "haven't had to go through us" during his tenure as Steelers head coach. But that's only true because the Steelers didn't get far enough to make it happen. While the Patriots have made six straight AFC Championship Games, this was Tomlin's first trip to the doorstep of the Super Bowl since the 2010 season. The Patriots are 5-2 against Tomlin's teams, making him one of many coaches who have won an occasional battle against Belichick while losing the war.
This game shouldn't have been such a blowout. The teams appeared evenly matched in the first half, and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was moving the ball well. Pittsburgh's offensive line dominated the Patriots' pass rush up front. But the Steelers struggled in situational football, like their goal-line offense. The Steelers had two separate trips inside the 5-yard line that didn't result in a touchdown. The Patriots have the No. 1 scoring defense because they bend but don't break.
"It was really 11 points there that we saved, so yeah, it was huge," Belichick noted.
While the Steelers were moving backward on the goal line late in the first half, Belichick was smartly taking timeouts to give his offense another chance to score before halftime. Brady didn't capitalize on that opportunity, but it was another example of the Patriots being given every possible chance to succeed. With one more brilliant game plan against the high-flying Falcons, Belichick could put to rest the debate about who's the greatest NFL coach of all-time. But that excellence starts with a level of attention to small details that defines his organization.
"Every coach prepares and has their scouting reports," Bennett said. "The difference is, every guy here is taking notes and making sure they get all the coaching points, because that's what they expect. The expectations are so high. If you aren't in the right spot, it makes such a big difference. They hold those high standards for everybody. If Bill calls a bad play, coach will say, 'That was a bad play, but you guys made up for it.' Every guy is held accountable. That's the biggest difference."
This victory, coming at the end of a season that started with Brady suspended, felt like it had special resonance for the Patriots organization. Belichick was effusive in his praise of the team, liberal with his smiles. Brady and friends talked about "finishing the job" in Super Bowl LI but took time to enjoy the tail end of a run that has gone on longer than anyone could have dreamed, longer than the rest of the AFC can stomach.