FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Wow. Simply, wow.

The New England Patriots are going back to the Super Bowl. And they made it look easy.

The Patriots overwhelmed the Pittsburgh Steelers with a 36-17 victory in the AFC championship game Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.

Now Roger Goodell – perhaps the most hated man in New England because of his handling of the Deflategate saga – will have to face Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in Houston, where the Patriots will play the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5.

For Brady and Belichick, this will be their seventh appearance in pro football’s championship game – and most likely their most satisfying.

This season began under a dark cloud as Brady was forced to sit out the first four games, the result of Goodell’s punishment for Brady’s role in Deflategate.

The Patriots didn’t falter, however, going 3-1 in those games, first with backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and then, when Garoppolo was injured, with rookie Jacoby Brissett.

Brady returned in the fifth game and responded with an MVP-caliber season, throwing 28 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

“He’s Tom Brady,” said Matthew Slater, the Patriots special teams captain. “I don’t think I have to say anything else. He’s Tom Brady.”

But Brady wouldn’t take much of the credit – even Sunday when he completed 32 of 42 passes for 384 yards (a Patriots postseason record) and three touchdowns.

He mentioned just about everyone on the offense in his postgame news conference, citing their hard work as a factor in this team’s success.

“Well, I think it’s because of a lot of work by a lot of people, my coaches, my teammates, to the family members who support us,” he said. “It takes a lot of people. And a lot of hard work over the course of many months.

“This thing didn’t start at 6:40 tonight, this thing started in April or even before that. It’s a lot of hard work and there are only two teams standing. And I’m happy to be one of them.”

Belichick, too, didn’t think Brady’s suspension put the team in a bad situation.

“Every year has its own challenges, whatever they are they are, every team has to deal with them,” he said. “We dealt with them. It’s a special year because it’s a special team.”

In the postgame ceremony on the field – where tight end Martellus Bennett danced with the cheerleaders and led the crowd by waving pompoms – Belichick was asked what made this team so special.

“It’s all about the players,” he said. “They work hard, they’re unselfish and they’re tough.”

It’s that hard work that has enabled the Patriots to overcome whatever has been thrown at them this year.

“A lot of people work hard in this league,” said Slater. “A lot of people sacrifice a lot. We’re very fortunate to have our hard work pay off. We played a great football team and we’re just thankful for this night and this moment.”

Slater then alluded to something that both Brady and Belichick mentioned, that Brady’s absence in the first four games didn’t cast a gloom over this locker room, that they simply went to work each day and prepared for their next opponent.

“This is the ultimate team sport,” said Slater. “We have a lot of team players who believe in one another, who believe in the process. And like I said, we’ve had good fortune along the way, but you tip the hat all the way back to Week 1 the way (Garoppolo) played and then the way Jacoby played. Those guys really allowed us to be in the position we are now.

“It’s a total team effort and we relied on all 53 guys.”

Other stars have been made in New England over the years, but Brady and Belichick are the two men who changed the fortunes. When history looks back on this incredible run of championship success that the Patriots have achieved – 11 AFC championship game appearances and, now, seven Super Bowls, four of which they’ve won – the two names listed first and most frequently will be those of Belichick and Brady.

They transformed this once-laughed-at franchise into the best in the NFL.

Now they have one more game to play this year.

You can bet they’ll be ready.

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

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Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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