5 takeaways from the Patriots’ thrilling win over the Chiefs

Chris Hogan, Stephen Gostkowski, and Rob Gronkowski answered the call.

Dont'a Hightower celebrates a key defensive stop during the fourth quarter Sunday against the Chiefs.
Dont'a Hightower celebrates a key defensive stop during the fourth quarter Sunday against the Chiefs. –Barry Chin / Globe Staff

COMMENTARY

Five takeaways from the Patriots’ exhilarating, buzzer-beating, statement-making, 43-40 win over the previously undefeated Chiefs:

Hogan, Gostkowski, and Gronkowski answer the call

When Julian Edelman was suspended for the first four weeks, and the Patriots’ receiver depth was depleted, Chris Hogan didn’t produce as much as might’ve been expected. Rob Gronkowski had three straight weeks with 51 receiving yards or fewer. And questions have trailed Stephen Gostkowski since the kicker struggled a bit in last year’s playoffs.

But with Sunday night’s game in the balance, those three joined Tom Brady – obviously – in rising to the moment and delivering an enormous victory for New England.

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Hogan’s big moment came with the Patriots facing third and 1, with 7:12 to play and in a precarious spot trailing by three points. His first option covered, Brady saw Hogan in single coverage and hung up a long lob with hopes his receiver could run under it.

To that point, Hogan had two catches for 17 yards, but in this crucial spot the quarterback went his way, and the receiver battled through pass interference to haul in a 42-yard completion. The very next play Brady went to him again, down the middle for 19 yards, advancing into a goal-to-go situation that the quarterback ultimately converted with a 4-yard run.

Gronkowski had been mostly limited, too, as the Pats deployed him primarily as a blocker. He’d been targeted twice, coming away with one catch for 16 yards. But with the Patriots looking to build on a four-point lead, they came out throwing after prompting the Chiefs to punt, and Brady went to his tight end. He hit Gronkowski running right to left, and after a vicious stiff arm, the big fella rumbled for a 42-yard gain. Then, after the Chiefs tied the game, it was Gronkowski who put the Pats in position for the win by beating his man in solo coverage and coming down with a 39-yard catch.

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At that point, it was up to Gostkowski – and he made good on the chance from 28 yards. That was the money kick, his fifth field goal of the night, but it was his fourth that was actually the most impressive of the bunch. And might have been just as important.

With 3:15 left, Gostkowski split the uprights with a boot that put the Pats ahead, 40-33.

That kick was just about perfect, and it had to be. It was hardly a “gimme” at 50 yards, and if he’d missed it would’ve given the Chiefs the ball at their own 40, with a short field and the sudden opportunity to control the clock against a defense that had struggled to stop it throughout the second half.

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Instead, Gostkowski drilled it, as he did all nine of his kicks on a night that may have restored some of the faith in him – and his team.

Too many big mistakes

The Patriots led 24-9 at the half, and finished with 500 yards of offense – yet they trailed in the fourth quarter, and needed a buzzer-beating field goal to escape with a victory. And the reason is as blatant as the breakdowns that allowed things to unravel.

Four big plays allowed the Chiefs to flip the scoreboard and outscore the Patriots 24-6 over a 22-minute stretch to start the second half, with Kansas City stunning New England in all three phases of the game.

The third quarter started with a 67-yard touchdown pass to Kareem Hunt. Brady was stripped after holding the ball too long, as he tried to extend a play where he couldn’t find a receiver who’d come open, and KC took over at the Patriots’ 29 before converting for a touchdown four plays later. After the Pats recovered from that, they surrendered a 97-yard kickoff return that led to another score. Then, once the Pats reinstated their seven-point lead, Tyreek Hill got open down field and scored from 75 yards out on the first play from scrimmage.

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The Patriots entered the game having allowed just 14 pass plays of 20-plus yards, and only one pass that went for 40 or more. Both of those were among the lowest totals in the league – and the talent and speed of the Chiefs make the big play an omnipotent possibility against any opponent – but Sunday was still a reminder of how quickly the game can change when lapses like those are allowed against a good team. Fortunately for the Patriots, this time the offense posted 43 points and didn’t punt, so they were able to survive it.

Run, run, run

Up against the AFC’s most prolific attack, the nature of the Patriots’ play calling would’ve made perfect sense if New England was simply trying to keep Patrick Mahomes and his multitude of weapons on the sideline. But when the Pats reached the 30-point plateau early in the fourth quarter they’d executed 30 running plays, compared to 28 pass dropbacks – and that approach appeared to have less to do with draining the clock than it did with the Patriots’ ability to exploit one of the Chiefs’ biggest vulnerabilities.

Though undefeated, Kansas City came to Gillette Stadium averaging an NFL-worst 5.8 yards per rush attempt. Their opponents, despite playing mostly from behind, had eclipsed 100 yards in four of five contests coming in. And after getting their ground game in gear the past couple of weeks, the Patriots were able to take advantage.

Sony Michel led the way with 106 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries, though James White and Kenjon Barner combined to add 55 yards on nine carries, as well, bringing the team’s total to 173 for the night. The per-carry average (4.8) was actually less than the Chiefs had been yielding on the year, but after the Chiefs tied the game at 40, the Pats went right back to the ground with the first set of downs. And when Michel slammed through the line on third and 1 with two minutes to go, it was the 15th first down New England gained via the rush.

There was criticism of Michel, and the Patriots’ decision to spend a first-round pick on a running back in this spring’s draft, but during the Pats’ perfect three-game homestand he piled up at least 98 yards and a score in each contest. Despite missing the first game of the season (and the entire preseason), then a sluggish first couple of weeks, he’s now on pace for 1,066 yards and 11 touchdowns.

White is a playmaker in the passing game, though Michel has given the Patriots the ability to punish teams that struggle to stop the run. Last year against the Chiefs, they couldn’t, even in short-yardage situations. Sunday night, they did.

Hightower makes an impact

After missing most of last season due to injury, Dont’a Hightower had been invisible for most of the season’s first five games. Sunday night, though, the linebacker delivered a couple of game-turning plays that helped the Patriots get out to a first-half lead.

The first was Hightower’s first career regular-season interception, when he duped Kansas City’s rookie quarterback by faking a blitz, backing off into coverage, and getting his head around in time to snatch a throw targeted for tight end Travis Kelce. He returned his pick to the Chiefs’ 4-yard line, and set up the first touchdown of the game.

The second came just before the half, when the Chiefs were moving the ball and on the cusp of going in for a score. This time Hightower was in hot pursuit of Mahomes. He flushed the QB toward the right sideline, and grabbed hold of Mahomes’ jersey as he was about to throw. Under that pressure the toss went toward traffic, and was deflected before falling into the hands of Duron Harmon.

With Kansas City set to receive the second-half kickoff, that turnover kept the Chiefs from having a chance for wraparound scores – and given how the second half unfolded, had KC come away with a touchdown there, or even a field goal, the strategy in the final moments might have been different.

The AFC picture

Leaving Detroit at 1-2, the Patriots were staring at a defining stretch three weeks ago. They had three home games looming, two of them against the teams leading their division and their conference.

They won all three, and all of a sudden they’re right back in position to make a push toward achieving their regular-season goals. They’re tied with the Dolphins atop the AFC East with a record of 4-2. That’s on pace with Miami and three other clubs for the second-best record in the AFC, and by virtue of Sunday’s win they’re now just a game back of the Chiefs for the conference’s No. 1 mark.

Considering tiebreakers, a loss Sunday would’ve effectively left New England four games behind Kansas City, and the Chiefs are also the only AFC team that has scored more points. Next the Patriots face the Bears, who are 3-2 after losing to the Dolphins in overtime, then they take on the Bills before the calendar turns to November.

That’s a downturn in the level of competition compared to Sunday night, but both of those tilts take place on the road – and these Patriots have yet to prove they can win away from Gillette. They’re 4-0 in Foxborough, but they’re 0-2 outside of that town, and have twice looked underwhelming in those losses.

They’re back in a good position, but again the Pats find themselves with a formative stretch before them. We know now they’re capable of competing at the top of the conference. But until they travel for four of their next five games, we may not know how good they really are.