Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 37-31 history-altering victory over the Chiefs, an instant classic that sends New England to its ninth Super Bowl in 18 seasons on the strength of its first road playoff win since January 2007 …
Back where they belong
Monday marks the 25th anniversary of Robert Kraft purchasing the Patriots from James Orthwein, a transaction that effectively saved pro football for New England. Before the ownership change the team appeared bound for St. Louis, but Kraft stepped in with an offer that was considered by many to be aggressive, and maybe even an overpay, given the state of the franchise at that time.
The Patriots had won a total of 14 games over the four seasons before Kraft bought the team. It’s particularly remarkable, then, to think that Sunday marked the 14th time the Pats have played in the AFC championship game since then.
And even more remarkable to realize that of the 25 conference titles contested over that span, Kraft’s Patriots have now won 40 percent of them.
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will add their ninth Super Bowl trip to the one Bill Parcells and Belichick teamed up to make before Brady’s arrival, returning to the big game to face the Rams team the Patriots took on when the most incredible run in NFL history really began some 17 years ago. (And, coincidentally, putting on the big stage a battle between two organizations that famously spurned the pro football fans of St. Louis.)
Where this latest achievement ranks in the pantheon of Patriots achievements depends on how things go in Atlanta a couple of Sundays from now. Expectations emanating from Foxborough are championship or bust, to the degree that division and conference championships don’t necessarily qualify as markers of a satisfactory season. But even if a third straight Super Bowl trip results in a second consecutive Super Bowl loss against Los Angeles, Sunday’s accomplishment deserves better than to be overlooked — because securing this latest berth is arguably as impressive as any the Pats have enjoyed over the second act of their dynasty.
The Patriots’ portrayal of themselves as underdogs has been mocked by some, given how often the pundits have picked them as favorites over the years, and how routinely they’ve played their way into positions like this. But this year has been different. They spent the offseason with controversy swirling, from the decision to bench Malcolm Butler, to letting four key contributors leave as free agents and another get traded, to Brady skipping voluntary workouts over the offseason, to Rob Gronkowski contemplating retirement, to the never-ending chatter about disharmony between the triumvirate of Kraft, Belichick, and Brady at the head of the operation.
The football world hurried to declare that the end of the Pats’ reign was near. Then they struggled at the start, losing two of their first three games. They continually laid eggs on the road, going 3-5 as visitors in the regular season, knowing a sub-.500 road record almost never equates to postseason success. They lost a killer at Miami, then let penalties cough one up at Pittsburgh, those defeats relegating them to the No. 2 seed — and a road game — in the postseason.
But, after Sunday, none of that matters. The Patriots are back in the Super Bowl. They’re back where they’ve come to feel like they belong. And in the end they’ve come through all of those struggles to, if anything, actually exceed expectations.
First half dominance was vital
In a season when sluggish, low-energy starts had become more rule than exception for the Patriots on the road, New England couldn’t have asked for a much better start than it enjoyed on Sunday night in Kansas City — in every facet of the game.
The offense opened with a 15-play, 80-yard march that ate up more than eight minutes of clock while effectively establishing the run. That was followed by moving Kansas City backward on the Chiefs’ first possession, even in spite of giving the hosts a new set of downs with a penalty. And both sides kept it up for the entirely of the game’s pre-intermission portion, complemented wonderfully by solid play on special teams and a scheme that was implemented and executed expertly.
To co-opt one of Belichick’s favorite phrases, the Patriots played and coached better than the Chiefs did over the first 30 minutes, their situational mastery exemplified in the final minutes of the second quarter. New England took over at its own 10 with 3:08 to play before the half, with its first priority seeming to be ensuring that they didn’t quickly give the ball back to the Chiefs on a short field. They initially did that by getting a first down on a couple of Sony Michel rushes to bring it to the two-minute warning, then coaxed KC into calling a timeout by gaining six on two more rushes. On third and 4, Brady connected with James White for the first down, then went back to White for a 30-yard catch-and-scoot on the next snap. Now New England was in business, and on second and 1 from the 29, Phillip Dorsett put a double move on his defender, and Brady hit him up the left side to send the Patriots to the locker room with a 14-0 lead.
The only problem was that the lead was only 14-0. Brady didn’t see linebacker Reggie Ragland drop off the line on a play from the 1, and a toss toward Gronkowski was instead intercepted in the end zone. That was a major opportunity missed, and meant that as well as the Patriots had played to that stage the lead they took to halftime was actually one point less than the 24-9 lead the Pats held — and lost — against the Chiefs during the regular season. It was nearly enough cost them their season.
A credit to the plan
The Chiefs finally got on the board with their first drive of the second half, breaking for the first time after Sammy Watkins beat Stephon Gilmore on third and 5, then Mahomes hit Travis Kelce from 12 yards on the next play. The Pats still maintained a 17-7 lead after the third, but saw their advantage on the scoreboard evaporate in the middle of the fourth quarter, when the Chiefs tallied 24 points to twice take the lead and ultimately force overtime.
With three touchdowns and a field goal, Kansas City scored on four of its five possessions in the final period of regulation — but that fact only underscores the importance of New England’s ability to consume the clock and keep its offense on the field by dominating possession of the pigskin.
Consider this: After Kelce’s touchdown, the Patriots were averaging 5.8 yards per play. The Chiefs, as much as they appeared to struggle offensively in the first half, were averaging 5.3 yards per play. The difference, and the impetus of the Patriots’ early dominance, was that to that point the Pats had run 42 plays to the Chiefs’ 20. The visitors had held the ball for 21:07, compared to the hosts’ 10:57.
And while the scoreboard certainly changed, the Pats continued to execute well enough to control the ball. Even from the Kelce touchdown forward, the Pats held the ball for 22:52 to the Chiefs’ 9:56. In that time, the Pats ran 52 plays, while the Chiefs ran 27. In the end, New England ran exactly twice as many offensive plays as KC, 94-47, and had its offense on the field for 43:59 of the 64:52 played.
Those numbers factor in the 13 snaps and 4:52 that the Patriots used to score the game-winning touchdown in overtime, a possession that came courtesy of Matthew Slater’s successful call of heads on a coin toss. That was a fortunate flip. But that’s where the luck element ends as far as those numbers are concerned. The Patriots didn’t go three-and-out once in the game. They went 13-for-19 on third down. They ran at least six plays on every series except the one that ended with Brady’s second interception, and the kneel-down that ended regulation.
So while the Chiefs may have scored 24 points with 3:13 of possession time in the fourth quarter, and scored five of the seven times they touched the ball in the second half, the Patriots only allowed them 11 possessions for the entire game. Had that been 12 or 13, the result could easily have been different — especially the way Kansas City had started to click after its initial troubles. The Chiefs are just too good and too talented offensively to be held down for 60-plus minutes. So needing only to somewhat limit them for 21 minutes seems a good way to play it.
Edelman and Gronkowski when it mattered
Three replay reviews went the way of the Patriots in the fourth quarter, when New England also benefited from a generous roughing the passer penalty. But those weren’t the biggest factors in New England rallying to take a late lead, or capitalizing at the start of overtime.
The biggest factors were Gronkowski and Julian Edelman.
Of course, it also helped to have Brady — who may have delivered the most impressive performance a quarterback with a 77.1 passer rating has ever delivered. But neither Brady’s 348 yards nor his team’s rally come to fruition without Gronkowski and Edelman repeatedly rising to the occasion.
Earlier in the night, Gronkowski had once again made his mark as a blocker in the run game, paving the way for Michel’s two touchdowns and the Rex Burkhead score that preceded his overtime winner. But with the game in the balance, he showed up like the Gronk of old, and again became the target that could punish teams for leaving him alone with single coverage and no help for his defender. After the Pats fell behind for the first time,
Gronkowski’s 11-yard grab brought the Patriots into the red zone. Then, with New England losing again in the final minute, Gronkowski beat Eric Berry for a 25-yard gain that set up a goal-to-go situation after it had been third and five. And finally, on third and 10 in overtime, the Pats went to one of their old bread-and-butter plays, Brady firing to Gronkowski on a slant that prevented the Pats from needing to potentially attempt a 47-yard field goal that wouldn’t have ended the game either way.
And Edelman was even more clutch than his tight end. Before Gronkowski’s, Edelman caught two chain-movers on third and 10 in overtime. He had a 20-yard hookup to start the drive, and bring the ball into Kansas City territory, on New England’s last drive of regulation. And on the game-starting tone setter, he found a soft spot to reset things on third and seven.
Edelman finished with seven catches for 96 yards, further asserting his credentials as one of the best receivers in postseason history with his seventh 90-plus yard effort in his last nine playoff games. That’s not easy. Neither were the catches Edelman was asked to make in the middle of the field Sunday in moments when all of Kansas City — not merely the Chiefs — had to know the ball was going his way.
As much as New England sports fans will be reminded over the next couple weeks not to take the greatness of Brady and Belichick for granted, the same applies for Gronkowski and Edelman, too.
Hill and Kelce were virtually non-factors
While the Patriots’ star receiver and tight end stepped up, New England’s defense made sure that their Chiefs counterparts couldn’t do the same.
KC got three fourth-quarter touchdowns from running back Damien Williams, who was every bit as dangerous as the departed Kareem Hunt. And receiver Sammy Watkins made a couple of big plays en route to a 114-yard evening. But fellow receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce, typically the focal points of the Chiefs’ offense, were turned into virtual nonfactors thanks to the Patriots’ defense.
Hill beat rookie Keion Crossen for a 42-yard reception in the second quarter, but Mahomes threw his way only twice more, and both went incomplete. Kelce, meanwhile, had the Chiefs’ first touchdown, though that was his last catch of the game and only catch of the second half. He totaled just 11 yards on a couple of catches in the first half.
Crossen and fellow undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson were entrusted with major responsibilities in the gameplan, and save for the one Hill catch and a couple of Jackson penalties they were up to the task. Gilmore was good at corner, as was Jason McCourty, who was barely tested (let alone beaten). The New England safeties didn’t let KC’s speedy threats get behind them, and the pass rush did a good job of pressuring Mahomes. Kyle Van Noy had two of the Patriots’ four sacks, while Trey Flowers had one in the first half that pushed the Chiefs out of field goal range. They were also part of a front seven package that kept Kansas City to just 41 rushing yards, and contributed to keeping the home team to four of nine on third down.
The defense played with a fearlessness that spoke to the attitude that carried into a hostile environment against a fast, skilled, and dangerous collection of talent on the other side — Hill and Kelce the most lethal among them. In the end, the stat sheet will show that the group allowed a 10-point fourth-quarter lead slip away, and was tagged with 31 points. That, however, doesn’t tell the story for a unit that continues to prove itself championship-level.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Bill Parcells and Tom Brady teamed up to make a Super Bowl. It should have read Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. Boston.com regrets the error.