FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A big part of what makes the New England Patriots so successful is their resourcefulness. It's what led them to sign wide receiver Chris Hogan in the offseason in what has turned out to be a perfect marriage with a player who embodies what the team is all about.
Hogan was a star performer in the Patriots' 36-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday night, totaling nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns, and he'll also be a huge factor in Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons on Feb. 5 in Houston.
"I'm just happy to take advantage of this opportunity, to be part of this team," Hogan said late Sunday night, donning a white AFC championship hat and huge smile. "It's been a long journey, but I've worked really hard to get to this point and I just couldn't be happier I get to be part of this team, this whole thing."
How Hogan landed in New England and turned in the best year of his career is a classic example of the Patriots' resourcefulness, and also how quarterback Tom Brady and the team's offensive system seem to bring out the best in many.
The Patriots were aggressive in the free-agent receiver market in the offseason, with Marvin Jones one of their top targets. But in the end, Jones signed a five-year, $40 million contract with the Detroit Lions.
Having lost out on Jones, the Patriots then turned their attention to the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Hogan, who as a restricted free agent with the Buffalo Bills was tendered at the lowest level ($1.6 million). The Bills viewed him as a solid No. 3 receiver, but the low tender indicated that they viewed him as a player they could live without.
The Patriots pounced, signing Hogan to a front-loaded three-year, $12 million offer sheet that the Bills didn't match. Because Hogan initially entered the NFL as an unrestricted free agent, the Patriots didn't have to surrender any compensation for him.
The end result: New England essentially stole him from a division rival.
Hogan went from playing 56.9 percent of the offensive snaps in Buffalo last season to 74.2 percent in his first season in New England. Playing in every personnel grouping, he averaged 17.9 yards per catch to lead all Patriots receivers in that category during the regular season (38 catches, 680 yards, 4 TDs). His work in the deep part of the field brought a new dimension to the offense and it is something the Falcons will have to contend with in Super Bowl LI.
"He's been incredible," Brady said after a night in which he feasted on the Steelers' zone coverage-heavy approach. "He's made big plays for us all season and he made big plays in the biggest game of the year for us."
Had things worked out differently with Jones, would the Patriots have still signed Hogan? Given the finances in play, that seems like a long shot, but only coach Bill Belichick knows for sure.
Meanwhile, Hogan's resourcefulness and resolve have made him a perfect fit in New England. Late Sunday night, he posted a snapshot of his underdog story on Instagram -- four-year lacrosse player at Penn State, one year football player at Monmouth University, undrafted in the NFL, and cut by multiple teams (49ers, Giants, Dolphins). He's had to fight and claw for everything, which are the types of players the Patriots generally identify as good program fits.
Hogan's journey is now well documented and Sunday night was the pinnacle so far.
"It's something that I'll definitely remember for the rest of my career, and probably for the rest of my life," he said of a performance in which he broke the franchise record for receiving yardage in a game. "Someone told me that this was going to be a game that you'll look back on 30 years from now and you'll remember exactly what happened. … It's a special moment for all of these guys in this locker room. We'll enjoy this and get back to work because we've got one more."