Tom Brady summed up well what all New England Patriots fans were feeling after last night’s 37-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, a win that sent the Patriots to their third straight Super Bowl and fourth in five years. While it’s nothing out of the ordinary for Patriots fans to openly (and sometimes vulgarly) revel in their team’s successes, it’s lately been rare to see that kind of behavior from the players themselves. We usually get those who are actually responsible for the victories toeing the company lines. Last night was a different story, with open expressions of joy and accomplishment that are rarely seen from this team.
Think back to Tom Brady during the crucial moments of the Super Bowl 51 comeback. Stoic, calm, locked-in are just a few terms that come to mind. Not to say he wasn’t happy or excited, but the emotions weren’t immediately apparent. Then compare that to last night, and what will be a defining image of an elated Brady immediately after the final play tossing his helmet and jumping into the arms of Kyle Van Noy.
Perhaps it had to do with the external doubts the Patriots faced all season. Brady nearly admitted as much after the game to reporters. “I think we had to overcome a lot this year. Down but not out, and we found a way to play our best the last four games…I was probably as excited as I have been in a long time.”
Six-year Patriots veteran Duron Harmon, normally one of those down-playing the team’s accomplishments, echoed the sentiment. “This team has worked hard, it hasn’t always been perfect this year. A lot of people have doubted us. I feel like the last two weeks we we’ve been supposed to lose but all we do is continue to come out a fight and do our best and I couldn’t be more proud of that”
Perhaps it was the opponent on the other side of the field that got the Patriots so riled up. Let’s be honest, the Pats go into most games, even in the playoffs, with the expectation they should win with little resistance. In the Chiefs, the Pats saw a true test, and earned a deserved underdog title. Did embracing that narrative all week make this victory stand out? Again, Brady’s post-game comments seem to support this theory. “The odds were stacked against us. It hasn’t been that way for us in a while.” James White noted that people expecting the Patriots season to end Sunday night cut deep with the team. “I think we all pretty emotional, coming into a rough environment, mostly everyone was thinking we weren’t going to win this football game.” Also expecting a tough test was special teams captain Matthew Slater, who will be heading to his 5th Super Bowl in 10 years with the team. “This is the best team in the AFC that we played tonight, so we knew that things were going to go back and forth” Rex Burkhead, who has known nothing but Super Bowl appearances in his time with the Patriots, seemed to be in the same mindset as well. “The Chiefs are a great team…it feels great…all of the hard work we’ve put in.”
Historically, in the rare cases that they find a worthy opponent in front of them, it is not uncommon for the emotions to come through at the end of games. The obvious example is the Super Bowl against Seattle, and the timeless clip of Brady jumping in circles on the sideline. There was also the Pittsburgh game on the road last year, when the Patriots trailed the Steelers by a game in the AFC Standings late in the season. You could even look at, through a slightly different lens, the 2016 season-opener in Arizona. In that game, New England had to go on the road, to face a team that had won 13 games the previous season, with a quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo who had never started a game in the NFL. In all three cases, the Patriots post-game reactions seemed elevated, and while that may have had to do with last second endings, perhaps those down-to-the-wire games were indicators of an equal or superior opponent on the other side.
Back to last night though, in all reality it was a combination of factors that led to the Patriots emotional outpouring after the game.
Playing on the road was not something they took lightly, “This was awesome. This was a great environment. It was the first time I have ever won on the road in the AFC Championship” Julian Edelman exclaimed after the game.
There was a quality opponent to match up with. “It’s a fact but I think at this point in time you have two teams playing for a championship,” said Devin McCourty, who will be playing in his fifth Super Bowl next weekend, but his first alongside his brother Jason. “I didn’t feel like they died at any point in the game, they kept coming back and I think both teams knew that we had to keep going and see how this thing ends…Just to play in a game like that, that’s a true battle.”
To cap it all off, it was one of the most memorable, gut-wrenching endings in NFL playoff history. “These close games are taking years off my life” said wide receiver Chris Hogan, who’s Patriots career includes being a crucial part of a Super Bowl overtime game-winning drive. “It was one of my sweeter victories, definitely, in my career” noted tight end Rob Gronkowski, who, after turning in perhaps the greatest career ever at his position, played the game like it was his last.
All that being said, perhaps the most surprising reaction came from the top; head coach Bill Belichick. “I am happy for them [the players] and happy we are still playing…Right now I’m just happy for our coaching staff, our players, and the entire organization for what we accomplished tonight.”
That’s right, Bill Belichick openly admitted he was happy. It’s an emotion he usually saves for the Super Bowl, but if things go well for his team in two weeks in Atlanta, we may get a double dose this year.