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Patriots vs. Steelers: Fan Notes from the AFC Championship

Notes, musings, and observations from the New England Patriots' 36-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Nine is an interesting number, isn't it?

There's a lot to like about the number nine; it's the highest single digit there is. It's one of the easier numbers to learn on the elementary school times table. It's, on a good day, how old I am mentally. And now, with this latest victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, nine is also the number of times the New England Patriots have appeared in a Super Bowl, which is enough for an NFL record.

And while I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thinking about what a nice, clean, round number 10 is, I have every intention of enjoying the hell out of the next couple of weeks. After all, how often do the Patriots make it to a Super Bo-

Oh, right. Nine. That's kind of a lot.

  • It isn't long after a football season comes to an end, regardless of how things shake out, that I start to miss the NFL. At first I enjoy getting half of my weekend back and not having to stress over a three hour sporting event that you are supposed to, in theory, watch as a way to relax and unwind. But that wears off quickly, to be honest, and by mid-March or so I'm really going to be missing football. But you know what I will never, ever miss? Having to wait until Sunday night to watch a Patriots playoff matchup. This was one of the slowest weekends of my life. I must block out the time leading up to these games after they're over, otherwise I'd probably just walk away from the NFL and never look back. I don't need this.
  • To make matters worse? Phil Goddam Simms got to call this one. Simms is like my bathroom visits after a visit to Arby's; every time I think the carnage is blissfully over, there's always one more final bout of misery to remind me that as long as I keep subjecting myself to the same thing on Sundays, I'm going to be dealing with some real crap.
  • Who the hell is Edwin McCain?
  • This was one of those rare Patriots playoff games that I actually enjoyed, as there was never a point where I felt that the Steelers were going to be able to keep up with the New England offense. For some reason, Pittsburgh insists on playing soft zone against the Patriots every time these two teams play, even when it's clearly not working. If you look at Brady's career stats against the Steelers - 7-2, 238/342 for 2,826 yards, 24 TDs, and 3 picks - you'd think that the defensive coordinator might want to switch it up once in a while. But I'm not Keith Butler, so what do I know.
  • And for the record, that stat line is just for the regular season. In the postseason, Brady is 3-0, 58/81 for 706 yards, 5 TDs, and no picks. So...yeah.
  • And even if Butler does refuse to switch it up, even if he decides to sink or swim with his particular defensive schemes...I don't know how "don't cover the big tall white guy" is supposed to help you achieve victory. Between Chris Hogan and Gronk, there seems to be a solid quarter mile of open space around them at all times.
  • Speaking of Gronk, he was hanging out in the luxury box with Bon Jovi last night. That's two, possibly even three, generations of women swooning all at once.
  • I'll tell you what did make me nervous, though - the Patriots winning the coin toss and electing to receive. That really threw me for a loop. But I think the strategy there was to get out to an early lead in order to help neutralize the running game and force the Steelers to become one dimensional by generating a couple of early scores. A bad Malcolm Mitchell drop short-circuited what was otherwise a fantastic opening drive, and you can't really knock the results.
  • Tommy B has postseason wins than Ben Roethlisberger has appearances. So excuse me if I'm milking every last second out of this run.
  • I have been writing about football for 10 years and covering the Patriots for Pats Pulpit since 2011, and the above note was the first time in my entire life that I actually spelled Roethlisberger correctly. Everything's coming up Milhouse!
  • If there was an MVP in this game, honestly, it was the girlfriend. Just sitting in the living room with me delivering hot take after hot take after hot take. For example:
  • On Dion Lewis: "who is that guy? He's short! Like a tiny little bullet!"
  • On Chris Hogan: "You know...he isn't ugly. But when you're on a team with Tommy B and Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, you just have no chance. He probably should have gone and played somewhere else."
  • On seeing her first ever NFL flea-flicker: "what was that! That was really neat! Can they do that? Why do they call it a flea flicker?"
  • NFL Network, if you need an analyst, I can give you her contact info.
  • And for the record: the play is called a flea flicker because it's inventor, University of Illinois coach Bob Zuppke, saw the play as resembling the fast motion of a dog trying to get rid of fleas. Take that as you will.
  • As for the play itself - instant highlight material for sure. What's remarkable about that play is that the one directly before it was a 22 yard Hogan catch and run where he was once again wide open, so it's not like the Patriots had been selling the run hard or anything like that. What made it work, though, was the quick bunch-in from the offensive line at the snap, coupled with Julian Edelman staying in to block and Hogan pulling up on the first part of his route. Only Malcolm Mitchell kept running the Go, both to try and get open and to draw the safety over towards his side, both of which he accomplished. Mike Mitchell starts working over to Malcolm Mitchell's side, and then completely bites on the run fake to allow Hogan to get behind him. Malcolm was open in the end zone as well...but not as open as Hogan was.
  • As Patriots fans, we know a thing or two about manufactured narratives. Storylines that absolutely nobody should care about, but since the media is lazy and desperate for pageviews, they get overblown and turn into something they shouldn't. The Antonio Brown Facebook Live video is the textbook definition of a manufactured narrative. I have yet to talk to a single person who gave a lick about it, thought it mattered, or felt it was a distraction. And anybody who is saying that Brown's day - seven catches for just 77 yards - is in any way the result of that distraction can go kick rocks.
  • I'll tell you the part of this game in which I was most frightened: that Duracell commercial about ear hair. At what point do I have to start worrying about ear hair? Am I old enough so I won't have to worry about it? Who gets it and who doesn't?
  • Seeing Le'veon Bell get hurt really sucks - sincerely. While I still say the Patriots win that game even with him in the backfield, to have him go down with a groin injury definitely diminishes this one somewhat. His speed, patience, vision, and elusiveness are rare in this sport, and we should never pass up the opportunity to enjoy watching a great player make great plays.
  • That said - I don't know how much credit Alan Branch will be getting this week, but he deserves a buttload of it. He was an absolute force along the line and led by example of matching patience with patience as he shed his blocks. One of Bell's strengths is to wait for a defender to commit, then once he does make a fast cut and explode into the second level. He wasn't able to do that because the line, led by Branch, played a more read and react style that saw them engage the linemen until it was time to pursue. In what limited action we saw from Bell, he was having trouble navigating the line of scrimmage. Whether he would have figured it out as the game went on will forever remain a mystery, but Alan Branch has been one of the most consistent defensive players getting very little love for it all season.
  • But if I had to pick one player on the defense to give my game ball to, it's going to be Vincent Valentine. He only had a single tackle on the day, but it was a tackle that, in my opinion, more or less broke Pittsburgh's will. After a Jesse James touchdown was rightly called back and DeAngelo Williams was stopped on the ensuing run, the Steelers faced a 2nd and goal on the one. Williams tried to punch it in up the middle, but Valentine shed his block and stuffed him in the backfield for a loss of three. A TD became a field goal just before halftime on the back of that stuff. Had Pittsburgh scored there, and then gotten the ball back, who knows what would have happened.
  • I also want to give some love to Logan Ryan, who is quickly turning into one of the better slot corners in the game. Some of his pass breakups and tackles were momentum-changing. He was giving up a lot of the underneath stuff to Eli Rogers, but those aren't the kind of plays that are going to damage this team too much.
  • On the flip side, I feel like Eric Rowe kind of got beat up on. There were at least three throws I can think of off the top of my head, two of which were for touchdowns, where Rowe was beaten and was saved by drops. He was also the man in coverage on the garbage time TD that blew holding the Steelers to single digits. He had a pick on the day, but honestly, I could have made that catch.
  • The Foxboro Faithful is really good at being loud on first down. Anyone else notice that? And what happens when 2nd down comes along?
  • I may have finally found something I hate more than the TD/commercial/kickoff for touchback/commercial crap sandwich: the TD/commercial/two minute warning/commercial/scoring review/commercial/call overturned/commercial/official and completely arbitrary timeout/commercial clusterbomb. I'm just glad the Patriots held there, otherwise that might have been the worst nineteen seconds of football and nine minutes of ads about Fenwick and Kars-4-Kids and Flo from Progressive of all time.
  • I'd love to be a fly on the wall in the advertising meeting where somebody pitched Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall while doing taxes, and somebody else gave it the thumbs up. I can't for the life of me remember what that commercial was for.
  • If you're a "Patriots get all the calls" truther, you must have LOVED last night's game. Playoff football in general sees less flags, but there were a few calls that went the Patriots way that likely has you pointing all kinds of fingers this morning. There were no flags thrown at all in the first half, and I don't think the refs called holding once, on either side for the entire game. The first penalty of the day was a Personal Foul for unnecessary roughness on Julian Edelman that I thought was completely bogus, and I think that the refs did a horrible job of explaining why the ball stayed with New England on the Brady sneak/fumble that wasn't. What happened there was that yes, Brady did appear to fumble, but there was no clear recovery before the referees stopped play completely and the Steeler who came away with the ball after the pile cleared up did so long after everyone had stopped fighting for it. In the moment of the fumble and during the scrum, there was no way to tell who had it and who didn't. There's a difference between the refs blowing the whistle and stopping the game entirely, and recovery wasn't clear during the former period. Thus, the ball stays with New England. One of those scenarios where the call on the field at the time has to stay.
  • I lost count of the number of defenders Blount dragged with him on the run that set up his TD at seven. carrying team into the end zone
  • Man do I hope that the Patriots fans attending the Super Bowl in a few weeks keep up the anti-Goodell chants. If the commish was smart (we all know he isn't), he would have come to Gillette at some point during the season - possibly even last night - and taken his lumps and gotten it out of the way. He's going to be booed at Gillette Stadium for the rest of his life, but the first one is going to be the one that gets the most publicity. Now he has to do that in front of the most watched game of the year with the chance that his first time being seen in public with Tommy B will involve...well, you know. That's the kind of awkward encounted I once thought was reserved solely for seventh grade dances, 10 year high school reunions, and every time I order takeout and I see by the number of plastic forks in the bag the restaurant assumed I was ordering for five.
  • So is the "this defense hasn't had to face a quality QB" argument dead now? Or can the usual Boston media suspects still discount this win because of Bell's injury and the drops? And if there was some kind of scandal to accompany this latest trip to the Super Bowl, would it have already dropped? What's everyone's prediction for which hoops will be jumped through to try and prove that the Patriots don't deserve this?
  • I sure am glad that these a-holes had that extra half day to prepare and cheated their way to another win. It's really paying off.
  • I haven't spent any time on any comment sections yet, and probably won't - a little too busy enjoying this win - but I'd like to hope that a Ctrl+F Find search for "cheaters" would yield so many hits it would break my computer. I try not to get too involved in that nonsense, but I'd be lying if I said this trip to Houston wasn't made sweeter by those folks who are no longer capable of rational thought because the Patriots own all available real estate in their heads. It's actually a mutually beneficial relationship; like-minded fans get to comment on internet articles about how classless and cheaty the Patriots are and find strength in numbers, I get to watch my team play in a Super Bowl again. Everybody wins!
  • We're on to Houston. Tommy B's thumb is looking mighty naked, and it's time to fix that.
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