Thirty-seven thoughts on the Patriots’ 37-31 victory over the Chiefs . . .
1. After 13 AFC Championship games, including the last eight in a row, and eight — whoops, make that nine — Super Bowl appearances of the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era, you’d think we’d be used to attempting to put stirring victories into immediate context. But it’s never easy, because the Patriots, nearly two decades into this thing and allegedly on weary legs, are still coming up with ways to amaze their fans and devastate their challengers.
2. We’ve seen “Go, Malcolm!,’’ and the Snow Bowl, and two Adam Vinatieri game-winners in the Super Bowl, and most improbable of all, the comeback from 28-3 in their last Super Bowl victory. But I’m not sure we’ve ever seen anything quite like what we saw in Sunday’s AFC Championship game.
3. Rex Burkhead plunged into the end zone from 2 yards out on the first possession of overtime, and the Patriots advanced to their ninth Super Bowl in Brady’s 18 seasons as a starter with a victory over a Kansas City team as potent as any they have faced in this run since the 2001 Rams.
4. The Patriots took a 14-0 lead into halftime, shutting out the admirable, sensational Patrick Mahomes and a Chiefs team that averaged 35.3 points per game in the regular season. The Chiefs unleashed their lightning in the second half, taking a 28-24 lead with just over two minutes left.
5. Along the way, there were dubious penalties, calls that stood and calls that were reversed on replay, a ball that may or may not have been touched by Julian Edelman, a deflection off Rob Gronkowski that was intercepted and would have ended the game if not for an offsides penalty on the Chiefs, and enough controversy to justify two sports radio stations in this city.
6. Brady, aided by longtime sidekicks Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, was as extraordinary as Patriots fans would have hoped and perhaps expected, and as extraordinary as Chiefs fans surely feared. He led the Patriots on a go-ahead drive in the final two minutes of regulation, then converted four third-and-longs in overtime while leading the Patriots methodically down the field, just as he did against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
7. You want context? On this? Now? Fine. It’s the fifth-most incredible victory of the Brady/Belichick era, behind the Super Bowl wins over the Rams, Seahawks, and Falcons, and the Snow Bowl. And it’s ahead of the Super Bowl wins over the Eagles and Panthers. It would also rate as the greatest victory in the career of 99 percent of quarterbacks in NFL history. It’s debatably top-five for Brady.
8. If you’re a Patriots fan, you have to be happy for Gronkowski. There was a chance this could be his last NFL game, and we know he’s not running like he used to, and for a player so joyous, there has been too much dejection this year. So it was a welcome flashback to see him catch six passes for 79 yards, including a 15-yarder on third and 10 in overtime that took the Patriots to the Chiefs 15.
9. With good health, Mahomes is going to have some unforgettable victories in his career. He’s mobile, creative, poised, has the best downfield arm I’ve seen since Warren Moon, isn’t afraid to take a hit, and showed no nerves whatsoever while leading the Chiefs’ comeback and then dueling with Brady down the stretch. I have little doubt that if the Chiefs had received the ball first in overtime that he would have taken his team to Atlanta. What a player.
10. Brian Flores and the Patriots defense should be proud of their showing, even after allowing 31 points in the second half. Shutting out Kansas City and forcing them to take a half before they could get their engines revving is a heck of an achievement.
11. Kyle Van Noy in particular seemed to be everywhere, especially in the first half. And a special tip of the cap to Keion Crossen, the little-used defensive back who was essential in the first half in slowing down Tyreek Hill.
12. I can’t recall a color analyst having a better game than Tony Romo did Sunday. The enthusiasm is genuine, and he adds so much to the broadcast in terms of recognizing what is coming.
13. There were so many plays that involved the officials and replay that I think Gene Steratore ended up talking more than Jim Nantz on the CBS broadcast.
14. Running back Damien Williams had three touchdowns for the Chiefs, two in the passing game, which I feel like something we should have been more aware of during the game. But so much happened that even excellent performances could be overlooked.
15. Rex Burkhead went from being a potential goat to a hero in the span of the fourth quarter and overtime. He failed to convert a fourth and inches with 9 minutes and 38 seconds left early in the fourth quarter and the Patriots clinging to a 17-14 lead. It seemed a curious call given how effective Sony Michel (29 carries, 113 yards, 2 touchdowns) had been.
16. But Burkhead scored the go-ahead touchdown from 4 yards out with 39 seconds left. That was way too much time to leave for Mahomes, who led the Chiefs to a tying field goal. But Burkhead got his second touchdown, running behind Gronkowski, James Develin, and Trent Brown, to win it in overtime. I didn’t get why the Patriots were using him so much, but it sure did work out OK. It’s almost like they know what they’re doing.
17. The most controversial play of the game, in the moment and in retrospect, was Edelman’s did-he-touch-the-ball-or-didn’t-he? play on a punt return in the fourth quarter. The ball initially, at least to the officials, appeared to deflect off — well, something, perhaps a thumb or a shoulder pad — and it was scooped up by the Chiefs. Tellingly, though, Edelman did not pursue the Chief. He insisted he didn’t touch it.
18. After much debate and pixelated replay on CBS straight out of 1990s technology, it appeared he was right and he did not touch it. Somehow, the replay officials in New York agreed. The fans at Arrowhead did not. I’m still not sure it was conclusive enough to overturn . . . but it was the correct call.
19. On the next play, Brady’s pass ricocheted off Edelman’s hands and was picked off by Daniel Sorensen. I applaud those of you who resisted “That one touched him’’ jokes on Twitter. I suppose that play was looked at as justice in Kansas City. I doubt it will be much solace in the offseason.
20. The best I’ve seen Michel play? Easy. The 2018 Rose Bowl, when he ran for 181 yard and 3 touchdowns on just 11 carries in Georgia’s 54-48 double-overtime victory. The best I’ve seen him play since he’s been a paid professional? That first drive Sunday. That’s remarkable given that he ran for 129 yards and three touchdowns a week ago against the Chargers.
21. But Michel was a force on the first possession, when the Patriots set a physical, we’re-no-underdog tone. The numbers weren’t spectacular — he ran 7 times for 33 yards on the drive — but he ran as hard and as tough as he has at any point during his impressive rookie season. It was only right that he got the honor of scoring the touchdown, on a 1-yard run that was as powerful as a Sam “Bam’’ Cunningham flashback. Look him up, kids.
22. Playing the role of David Patten in this episode was Phillip Dorsett. Patten, you’ll surely recall, caught a touchdown pass from Drew Bledsoe in the 2001 AFC Championship game, and a touchdown pass from Brady right before halftime in the Super Bowl win over the Rams.
23. Dorsett, whose streak of catching every target from Brady since Week 4 ended late in the divisional round win over the Chargers, hauled in a 29-yard pass (while being mauled, with no flag) in the end zone with 27 seconds left in the first half. His reliability has been a pleasant development this season.
24. The Patriots’ first drive, which came on the opening possession of the game, could not have gone better as far as being tone-setter. The Patriots went 80 yards on 15 plays, talking 8:05 off the clock before Mahomes ever took a snap.
25. Gronk surpassed his catch total (one) from last week 2 minutes and 40 seconds into the game. His blocking contributions are not exaggerated, either. He helped pave the path for several of Michel’s early runs, and he cleared some space on Burkhead’s winning touchdown, too.
26. Rough game for rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson, who was called for two pass interference penalties and another for illegal contract, and gave up his first touchdown catch of the year to Travis Kelce on the first drive of the second half. I’m not sure how many of his penalties were actually penalties, though. Chiefs defensive backs certainly would not have been called for the same things when it came to defending Gronkowski.
27. Call me Darrell Bevell if you want, but I didn’t have a problem with the Patriots’ decision to throw on third and goal from the 1 with a 7-0 lead in the second quarter.
28. Yeah, Brady got picked off — he didn’t appear to see linebacker Reggie Ragland — but it looked to me like it would have been a touchdown to Gronk with a better throw. The mistake wasn’t the call. It was Brady’s execution of it.
29. If there was a blessing on the play, it’s that Ragland is not 2005 Champ Bailey. The Chiefs also did nothing with the gift, going three-and-out.
30. If you’re not going to trust Brady there, there’s no quarterback in history that you could trust in that scenario. (Right — especially Russell Wilson). Brady had gone 237 straight passes in the postseason, including his last 78 in the red zone, without a pick.
31. It took awhile before we saw Mahomes do the kind of impressively ridiculous things that make him the likely Most Valuable Player award winner. The Chiefs had totaled just minus-2 yards midway through the second quarter.
32. But on the Chiefs’ ensuing possession, Mahomes coverted a third-and-2 with a 12-yard dart to Sammy Watkins after eluding Van Noy, who appeared to have him lined up. Then, on the next play, he threw a fastball to lightning bolt Hill for a 42-yard gain. Now there was the version of the Chiefs that tormented the AFC this year.
33. The most explosive offense I’ve ever seen belonged to the 2007 Patriots. The most explosive offense I’ve ever seen play against the Patriots was the Greatest Show on Turf Rams in 2001. The Chiefs, who scored at least 35 nine times, and never scored fewer than 26, belong in the conversation with those two.
34. The Patriots held the Chiefs to 32 yards in the first half, which is amazing considering Hill had a 42-yard catch. You had to figure the Chiefs would adjust. They didn’t just adjust, they came out with Mahomes’s guns blazing in the second half.
35. The Chiefs needed just four plays to go 74 yards and cut the score to 14-7. The big play was a third-and-2 laser to Watkins for a first down. The ever-annoying Travis Kelce got the Chiefs on the board with a 12-yard catch.
36. But the peak Mahomes play, the type of dazzler that gets him compared to Brett Favre, came on a Chiefs drive that ended in another touchdown that cut the Patriots’ lead to 17-14 early in the fourth quarter. Little did we know that 37 more points would be scored from that point on.
37. Brady, Edelman, Gronk and a resilient defense leading the Patriots to a Super Bowl? Sounds familiar. Don’t let me ever take it for granted, and I’ll do the same for you.