FOXBOROUGH — Much ado about nothing. Prognostications of doom could not be written fast enough in anticipation of the New England Patriots’ showdown with the Kansas City Chiefs. But with a controlled performance on both sides of the ball, the Patriots advanced to the AFC title game with a 27-20 victory over the Chiefs.
If there was any doubt that the Patriots had not yet avenged that brutal 2014 beatdown, they exacted every last bit of possible revenge against the Chiefs by eliminating them from postseason contention while also clinching a fifth straight trip to the AFC Championship Game.
With all the reports of injuries, off-field incidents and other assorted drama leading up to the game, the Patriots had a lot of question marks headed into Saturday. After kickoff, they got a lot of answers.
Here are some of the key takeaways.
1. Rob Gronkowski is just fine: A knee injection, a back injury and/or a trip to the hospital. Whichever of the multiple reports you read about tight end Rob Gronkowski’s health headed into Saturday’s game, none of them mattered after the opening kickoff. Gronkowski had a typical Gronk day, catching seven of the eight passes thrown his way for 83 yards with two touchdowns. He appeared to be suffering no ill effects of any injuries, playing with the same level of aggressiveness and toughness we’ve come to know from him in his six years with the team. Gronkowski’s relative health is a huge positive for the Patriots headed into the AFC Championship Game, whether they are at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers or on the road against the Denver Broncos.
2. Julian Edelman is back, and as good as ever: One of the big question marks heading into the postseason was the health of wide receiver Julian Edelman. After one game against the Chiefs, we have our answer: Edelman was once again Tom Brady’s biggest security blanket. Edelman turned his whopping 16 targets into 10 receptions for 100 yards, and finished as the Patriots’ leading receiver. He appeared to have no problem planting, cutting and accelerating off his injured foot. The Patriots have to be feeling very confident after what they saw from Edelman in his first game back since Week 10.
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PHOTOS: Patriots vs. Chiefs
3. Third downs in focus: At one point, it looked like both offenses were going to convert every single third down they faced. The Patriots and Chiefs combined to convert their first seven third-down attempts into first downs. The streak ended when the Patriots forced the Chiefs to kick a 34-yard field goal on a drive that stalled in the red zone. In the first half, the Patriots converted six of their eight third downs and the Chiefs converted seven out of 11. On the night, the Patriots went six of 11 and the Chiefs went 12 of 20 trying to move the chains on third downs.
The Patriots are probably very grateful to have their third-down offense clicking once again, after converting just 29 of 86 third-down tries in the final six games of the season (their 33.7 percent was the sixth-lowest in the NFL in that span). On the other side of the ball, the Patriots’ defense has to get more third-down stops to keep their postseason hopes alive.
4. Too close for comfort? The Patriots held a 27-13 lead in the fourth quarter, but the Chiefs didn’t relent. They moved the ball to the Patriots’ 1-yard line with 2:33 left in the game, but were tackled for a two-yard loss on the next play. On the first play after the two-minute warning, the Chiefs committed a false-start penalty. The Patriots very nearly had a third-down stop at the goal line, but cornerback Logan Ryan was flagged for pass interference, giving the Chiefs three more chances at the end zone from the 1-yard line. The Chiefs finally scored a touchdown on a one-yard run by Charcandrick West off an option pitch, which opened up the potential of an onside kick. Gronkowski recovered the kick, though, and with another first down on an improbable pass that went right through the waiting hands of Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali, the Patriots would end the game. If the sequence of events had unfolded any differently, the Chiefs might have tied the game and sent it to overtime.
5. Who’s next? With the Patriots advancing to the AFC Championship Game, the focus now turns to Sunday’s showdown between the Steelers and Broncos. If the Steelers advance, the Patriots will host the AFC title game at Gillette Stadium, where they sealed a spot in the Super Bowl last season. If the Broncos are the victor, New England will pack its bags to head to Denver, where its postseason ended the season before that. Of course, the Patriots would love to have that game in the comfort of their own home, but a lackluster performance down the stretch cost the Patriots the No. 1 seed in the conference. As the No. 2 seed, they’ve been relegated to watching the scoreboard.