Here’s what was predictable about Sunday night: The New England Patriots beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game, 36–17. The game wasn’t particularly interesting — just like almost every other playoff game this postseason. You checked to see if there was a good movie on cable. There wasn’t.
And now for the weird part: In a playoffs full of dominant wide receivers, Chris Hogan — freaking Chris Hogan — is now the breakout star. Oh great. Another good Patriots player who New England got on the cheap. We didn’t have enough of those already.
Maybe Julio Jones, last seen literally throwing people to the ground in Atlanta earlier on Sunday, was the most impressive player in either of the championship games, but Hogan’s dominance was the most unpredictable development. In an unsurprising and boring playoffs, something unexpected finally happened. The 28-year-old — yes, this dude is older than Julio Jones … and has 372 fewer career receptions — finished with 180 yards and two touchdowns, as he exposed a hapless Steelers team whose coverage of Hogan would be shocking had their coverage of every other Patriots receiver not been equally pathetic.
There are two sides to Hogan’s success. (1) Sure, he played lacrosse (not football) at Penn State and barely caught double-digit passes at Monmouth, but this is no fluke. Hogan is a specialist at finding space: In the regular season, he led all NFL players with 20.9 yards per catch when there were five receivers and five or more defensive backs on the field — a tribute to his ability to get open when it’s hard to do so. And (2) the Steelers did not even spend the 30 seconds necessary to Google what, exactly, the Patriots like to do on offense. As Daniel Jeremiah put it:
The most notable play on Sunday was a Tom Brady–to–Dion Lewis–to-Brady flea-flicker that ended with a wide-open Hogan catching a pass and trotting into the end zone. This was impressive, sure, but the Patriots didn’t even need a flea-flicker to get Hogan open. It’s like using a machine gun to open a can of soup. It worked, so … good for you? Hogan was open all the time with regular routes. On the flea-flicker, safety Mike Mitchell was the closest player to Hogan — and he wasn’t ever that close.
That was the sequel to Chris Hogan Is As Open As Any Player in NFL History:
You sort of knew the game plan was cooked when the Steelers were throwing 234-pound linebacker Lawrence Timmons on Julian Edelman in coverage.
That led to this:
In all, nine Patriots had receptions — Hogan and Edelman both eclipsed 100 yards, something Steelers superstar Antonio Brown failed to do.
It was a wildly disappointing game for Pittsburgh, which has one of the most talented offenses in the NFL and yet could piece together only nine points before garbage time. Unlike Pittsburgh, New England seemed to have a vague idea of who the opponent’s good players were, and the Patriots pounced. Brown was kept quiet principally by Malcolm Butler, who held him to 24 yards on two catches while covering the All-Pro.
There were some legitimate excuses for Pittsburgh’s performance: The Steelers lost star running back Le’Veon Bell in the first quarter with a groin injury, but even an injury that large shouldn’t have left the offense looking so helpless. Simply put, Sunday was another reminder that the mixture of talent and coaching in New England is usually too great for all but the greatest teams to overcome. Let’s check in on Mike Tomlin:
Hogan’s emergence — and remember, Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Martellus Bennett are pretty damn good, too — will be key when the Patriots play the Falcons in two weeks in Houston. Their ability to spread out a pass defense that ranked 28th in the league during the regular season should help them keep up with the best offense in the league.
The Falcons and Patriots will both have at least four pass-catching weapons on the field at all times. It’s set up to be a classic, even though the rest of the playoffs have been quite a snoozefest. Not only are the Patriots headed to the Super Bowl, but their offense is rolling. Bill Belichick can barely contain his excitement.