One of the brightest stars of the NFL's conference championship games was a 28-year-old wide receiver who went undrafted and played four seasons of lacrosse in college.
Leave it to the New England Patriots to unearth a player like Chris Hogan and let him loose for nine catches, 180 yards, and two touchdowns with the Super Bowl on the line.
For a team that often finds diamonds in the rough, Hogan is the latest example of the Patriots turning a player other teams didn't want into a valuable contributor.
Hogan's story is unique. An All-State lacrosse and football player in high school, he had offers from Division I schools to play both sports, and ultimately chose to play lacrosse at Penn State. While he shined for four seasons at Penn State, he told the Boston Globe's Jim McBride that he always had an itch to play football. With a year of eligibility left (because of an injury his sophomore year), he enrolled at Monmouth University to play football.
Hogan's college football career didn't blow anyone away — he had just 12 receptions and one touchdown while playing wide receiver and cornerback for Monmouth. While he wasn't on many teams' radars heading into the 2011 Draft, he made waves at workouts by running a 4.47-second 40-yard dash, benching 225 lb 28 times, and generally blowing away the competition in speed drills, according to the Star-Ledger's Mike Garafolo.
Still, Hogan went undrafted, had brief stays with the Giants and 49ers before landing on the Dolphins' practice squad. During an episode of HBO's "Hard Knocks," which focused on the Dolphins in 2012, it was revealed that Reggie Bush nicknamed Hogan "7/11" because he was "always open." However, Hogan never made the 53-man roster and later joined the Buffalo Bills, where he played three seasons, catching a total of 87 catches for 959 yards and six touchdowns.
The Patriots handed Hogan a three-year, $12 million contract in 2016, raising the eyebrows of some. But as ESPN's James Walker noted, the Patriots were confident in Hogan's ability after playing against him in Buafflo for three years.
The signing has already paid dividends. Hogan caught 38 passes for 680 yards and four touchdowns in 2016. His incredible athleticism has also been present, as he led the NFL with 20.9 yards per catch when there were five or more receivers and five or more defensive backs on the field, according to The Ringer's Kevin Clark. In other words, Hogan can get open, even in minimal space.
The Steelers learned this the hard way on Sunday as Hogan repeatedly burned an already-shaky secondary.
After the Patriots' 36-17 win over the Steelers, Hogan said (via ESPN's Mike Reiss), "I'm just happy to take advantage of this opportunity, to be part of this team. 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."
Tom Brady added, "He's been incredible. He's made big plays for us all season and he made big plays in the biggest game of the year for us."
The Patriots and Falcons should combine for a high-octane Super Bowl. However, the Falcons' ranked just 19th in pass defense during the season, which means it may be another productive day for Hogan.