Tom Brady ran off the field wearing a fresh “AFC Champions” T-shirt and the rest of his stained uniform, an athletic glove and play-call band on his left hand and wrist.
He bowed his head, put his unadorned right arm high into the air and waved to the crowd before ducking into the Gillette Stadium tunnel and greeting well-wishers with hugs.
Then he disappeared into a happy but ever-businesslike New England Patriots locker room.
The scene after the Patriots’ 36-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday might not have varied much from the other times Brady and his team advanced to the Super Bowl.
But the circumstances certainly were different.
The NFL forced Brady to sit out the first four games of the season, punishment for his role in an alleged football-deflating scheme. That did not stop Brady and the Patriots from returning to Super Bowl for the seventh time in the quarterback’s Hall of Fame career.
“It was a good day,” said Brady, who passed for 384 yards and three touchdowns. “I mean we’re going to the Super Bowl, man.”
He added an expletive of joy and said, “You’ve got to be happy now.”
The Patriots will play the Atlanta Falcons, 44-21 winners Sunday over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC title game, in two weeks in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston.
Brady and Coach Bill Belichick are heading to the Super Bowl together for the seventh time.
“The numbers are nice and all that,” Belichick said, “but it’s really about this team and this year and this group of guys.”
Just as they did during the 2001 and 2004 seasons — when they won NFL championships — the Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl by defeating the Steelers in the AFC title game.
He threw two touchdown passes to receiver Chis Hogan — one on a flea-flicker play — and another to receiver Julian Edelman as the Patriots earned a record ninth Super Bowl appearance, their second in three seasons.
And they did it with the crowd at times chanting “Roger,” a reference to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who handed down Brady’s suspension and chose to attend the NFC title game rather than visit Gillette Stadium.
“I didn’t hear that chant,” Brady said.
The Steelers had hoped to duplicate the Denver Broncos’ performance in last season’s AFC title game, when they registered four sacks and hit Brady 17 other times. But the Patriots’ offensive line gave Brady all the time he needed in a victory that extended the team’s winning streak to nine games and improved their record to 16-2.
Brady spread the wealth, completing 32 of 42 passes to nine receivers. Hogan caught nine passes for 180 yards. Edelman had eight catches for 118 yards.
“He ripped us apart,” Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt said of Brady.
It wasn’t all Brady and the offense Sunday.
With Steelers star running back Le’Veon Bell sidelined nearly the entire game because of a groin injury, the Patriots defense forced two turnovers and produced two goal-line stands.
The New England secondary controlled star receiver Antonio Brown and broke up passes throughout the game.
“We knew there was going to be a point in the game where we needed to put a nail in the coffin in a sense,” cornerback Logan Ryan said of the secondary, “and I think we were able to do that.”
The game’s biggest play, perhaps, occurred late in the second quarter with the Patriots up, 17-6.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed a pass to tight end Jesse James that was initially ruled a touchdown. But upon review, it was determined that James was down inside the one-yard line.
The Patriots dropped running back DeAngelo Williams for a one-yard loss on first down, and a three-yard loss on second down, then Roethlisberger’s pass fell incomplete, forcing the Steelers to settle for a field goal.
“I don’t know if that was the one thing, but you’ve got to score when you’re down there,” Roethlisberger said. “There were other missed opportunities, whether we didn’t execute well enough, whether plays weren’t made by me or other guys.
“It just, at times, felt like it was almost too big for some of the young guys.”
The Patriots added a third-quarter field goal and then all but sealed the victory with a three-play sequence near the end of the third quarter. Brady connected with Hogan for 39 yards, running back LeGarrette Blount dragged nearly the entire defense for the final 10 yards of an 18-yard gain, and then Blount scored on a one-yard run for a 27-9 lead.
The Patriots forced a fumble on the first play of the ensuing possession and Brady hit Edelman for a 10-yard touchdown, starting a celebration by the crowd.
“It’s a great story,” defensive back Devin McCourty said, when asked about the Patriots’ achievement in light of Brady’s early-season absence. “But I think our focus is to get to Houston in a couple of weeks and try to win it.
“I think that makes the story even better.”
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein
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