FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Tom Brady redemption tour is headed to the Super Bowl.
After beginning the season suspended for four games for his role in Deflategate, the quarterback relentlessly carried the Patriots to an unprecedented ninth appearance in the title game, and his seventh. Brady threw for a franchise playoff-best 384 yards and three touchdowns in a 36-17 rout of the helpless Steelers on Sunday in New England's seventh straight AFC Championship Game.
"This is my motivation right here, all these fellas in front of me, these guys," Brady said, pointing to his teammates and ignoring mentions of Deflategate. "The boys showed up to play" Sunday.
The Patriots are early 3-point favorites over Atlanta in two weeks in Houston, seeking their fifth NFL title with Brady at quarterback and Bill Belichick as coach. Belichick's seventh appearance in a Super Bowl is a record for a head coach.
Brady was banned by commissioner Roger Goodell — who was notably absent from Sunday's game — while New England went 3-1 to open the schedule.
Since his return in Week 5, the only defeat came at home to Seattle, and Brady, 39, had one of the best seasons of his career. He punctuated that in dreary weather similar to the 2014 conference title game that precipitated the deflated footballs investigation by flattening Pittsburgh's secondary.
Chris Hogan was his main weapon. The unheralded receiver found open spaces everywhere on the field against a leaky secondary. Hogan caught nine balls for 180 yards and two scores.
Top wideout Julian Edelman added eight receptions for 118 yards and a touchdown as Brady tied Joe Montana's playoff record with nine three-TD passing performances. Brady also had his 11th 300-yard postseason game, extending his NFL record, completing 32 of 42 throws.
"We won a lot of different ways under a lot of different circumstances," Brady said. "Mental toughness is what it is all about, and this team has got it. We'll see if we can write the perfect ending."
Pittsburgh lost star running back Le'Veon Bell late in the first quarter to a groin injury. It didn't seem to matter much in a record 16th conference title match for the Steelers, who made mistakes in every facet. The franchise that has won the most Super Bowls, six, and the most postseason games, 36, never seemed likely to challenge in the misty rain.
"We've got to be capable of overcoming those things," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "Injuries and so forth are part of the game. The reality is we didn't make enough plays in any of the three phases. The game kind of unfolded in the way they would like it to as opposed to the way we would like it to."
Hogan's second touchdown came on a flea-flicker, and he easily beat safety Mike Mitchell to the corner of the end zone. It gave him the first multi-touchdown game of his four-year career.
By the end, the crowd was chanting "Where is Roger?" and celebrating yet another Super Bowl trip for the Patriots. Soon after, tight end Martellus Bennett was boogeying with the cheerleaders, pompoms in hand, and owner Robert Kraft was accepting the Lamar Hunt Trophy.
"For a number of reasons, all of you in this stadium understand how big this win was," Kraft said. "And we have to go to Houston and win one more."