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ARROWHEAD STADIUM — For the ninth time in the Brady and Belichick era, the Patriots punched their ticket to the Super Bowl with a 37-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.
Nine times. Nine times, which is more than any other franchise besides New England, these two have advanced to the Super Bowl; they will now have played, and coached in half of the Super Bowls since Brady took over at quarterback in 2001.
But this one was different, as the for only the third time, and the first instance since 2004, the Patriots won on the road in a house of horrors for them at Arrowhead Stadium.
And they overcome plenty of miscues: two Brady interceptions (one being his fault), coming up short on a critical fourth down, Julian Edelman losing his mind for a few minutes and nearly muffing a punt followed by a drop that led to an interception, and allowing the Chiefs to get into field goal range to send the game to overtime in only 39 seconds.
However, they won despite that thanks to a dominant first-half effort by the defense, destroying KC in time of possession (43:59 to 20:53) and their big guns late with Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman spoiling the first home AFC title game in Chiefs history.
Below, we’ll go over ten things we learned from what was an instant-classic at Arrowhead:
1. Brady, Edelman, and Gronkowski Take the Patriots Back to the Super Bowl
After countless hours of debates about cliffs, the Patriots’ three biggest stars on the offensive side stepped up in the biggest of moments on Sunday night in Kansas City.
Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman saved their best for last as Brady threw for 147 yards leading the Pats on three scoring drives in the games final 12 minutes including overtime with 106 of those yards going to Gronk and Edelman.
Maybe more so than Brady, Gronkowski’s diminished abilities as a receiver have been a storyline all season long, but the Pats tight end out-shined Chiefs All-Pro Travis Kelce in this one.
On the Patriots’ go-ahead touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter, Brady threw a beautiful pass to Gronk along the left sideline on third and five, and Burkhead would punch it in on the next play.
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Gronkowski was flexed out wide against Chiefs safety Eric Berry, and Brady lofted a touch throw over the coverage and into the big mitts of Gronk who told me after the game that it was a terrific throw from Brady and, “his turn to make a play.” Gronk created some late separation and out-muscled Berry at the catch point to haul in one of the most important catches of the game.
As for Edelman, he accounted for 35 of the Patriots’ 75 yards in overtime with both of his catches coming on third down.
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On third and nine, Brady went to Edelman against man coverage where he was matched up on the Chiefs top cornerback, Kendall Fuller, and there was a safety in the middle of the field. Edelman burns Fuller almost instantly in the route, and Brady fits the ball into tight coverage to keep the chains moving.
The Patriots’ three-headed monster will have to deliver a vintage performance one more time in a few weeks, but for now, we can appreciate how lucky we all are to see greatness.
2. Tom Brady’s Still Not Done Yet
On the Patriots’ second drive of the game, Brady led the offense down to the Kansas City one-yard line with an 11 play, 43-yard drive. Then, the Pats quarterback lost track of Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland and threw the ball right to him costing the Patriots at least three points.
At that point, and when the Chiefs rallied back to take the lead late, that could’ve been the storyline for Brady.
However, as noted earlier, Brady wasn’t done yet, and saved his best for last in a perfect end of game performance making quick and precise decisions while dropping dimes on the Chiefs defense; two of his best throws we’ve already been over.
In this section, I want to discuss Brady’s only touchdown pass of the day, a 29-yard strike to wide receiver Phillip Dorsett to put New England up 14-0 before the half.
Brady and Dorsett have made a habit of connecting for scores in the fringe red zone area, where the speedy wideout can still using his vertical speed to take the top off the defense.
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Dorsett had a one-on-one matchup with Chiefs defensive back Stephen Nelson and hit Nelson with a double-move that Brady sold with a pump fake. Then, Brady led Dorsett perfectly dropping the pass right into the bucket for the score, “he made it easy for me,” Dorsett said.
The Patriots’ players also talked about Brady’s cool demeanor in the huddle with the game on the line, and how that calms everyone’s nerves just by looking into his eyes.
The Pats quarterback will now play in his ninth Super Bowl, which is more than any other franchise in the NFL besides New England.
3. Jonathan Jones and Devin McCourty Put the Clamps on Tyreek Hill
In two career games against the Patriots, Tyreek Hill had 275 yards and four touchdowns entering Sunday night’s AFC Championship Game.
On Sunday night, the New England defense held Hill to one catch for 42 yards in a tremendous effort by cornerback Jonathan Jones and safety Devin McCourty.
Although Jones has fallen out of favor at times this season, it was his blazing speed that made the Patriots’ coaches decide to put him on Hill in man-to-man coverage.
“They challenged us. They came up and played man. Not a lot of teams have this year. They put people in our face to see how we responded,” Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said.
Jones wasn’t alone on Hill, as the Patriots doubled the game-breaking wideout with Jones and safety Devin McCourty.
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On the Van Noy sack, you can see Jones playing with a “trail” technique on Hill with McCourty over the top defending the deep ball. In this technique, Jones will allow the receiver, in this case, Hill, to release downfield and “open his gate” immediately to sprint underneath the route. If Hill tries to run a comeback or in-breaking route, Jones is there to take it way, and if they throw it over the top, McCourty is there to defend that.
The Patriots surprised me putting Jones on Hill, but the doubling call that they usually refer to as “one double” was the type of coverage I theorized they’d play against Hill earlier in the week.
To Jones and McCourty’s credit, they did an excellent job, shutting down one of the games best.
4. JC Jackson, Stephon Gilmore Shut Down All-Pro Tight End Travis Kelce
Along with Hill, the Patriots also took out Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce holding him to three catches for 21 yards and a touchdown.
Jackson took Kelce for most of the game in man coverage without much help, although the Pats did provide him with inside help at the linebacker level so he could play Kelce with outside leverage.
Jackson told me that he found out today, yes, today, that he was covering Kelce and that his goal was to be physical with him at the line of scrimmage knowing how electric the tight end can be at the top of his route.
In the fourth quarter, the Patriots switched Jackson and Gilmore, who was tracking Sammy Watkins, and it was Gilmore that took Kelce with the game on the line.
Asked what he thought when the coaches told him he’d take Kelce, Gilmore said, “hell yeah.”
5. Patriots Pass Rush Flusters Mahomes
When you face a quarterback as talented as Patrick Mahomes it’s essential to pressure him while also keeping him in the pocket, and the Patriots forced him into some mistakes by disrupting him early on.
“They blitzed about every down,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said about New England’s strategy in the first half where they shut out the Kansas City offense.
Speaking in the locker room after the game, Patriots defensive tackle Adam Butler credited a great plan by the coaching staff, but also said that the Pats defense didn’t do anything out of the ordinary to pressure Mahomes.
Kyle Van Noy, who was tremendous, had a critical third-down sack in the first quarter to force a punt that was a great example of New England’s overall plan as a defense.
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On the play, the Patriots ran a game or stunt with Van Noy wrapping around the penetration from linebacker Dont’a Hightower and Butler. The Patriots’ defensive ends on the play, Trey Flowers and Adrian Clayborn, did a fantastic job of not allowing Mahomes to escape around the edge, and the pressure up the middle closed quickly to bring down the Chiefs quarterback.
I reference the play in the secondary on that sack earlier, but the Patriots’ rejuvenated pass rush since the bye week is arguably the biggest reason why they’re headed back to the Super Bowl.
6. Chiefs Adjust at Halftime to Patriots’ Man-Pressure Defense
Like the matchup in October, this was a tale of two halves for the Patriots defense and the Chiefs offense.
In the first half, the Patriots held Kansas City scoreless, and the Chiefs only had 32 yards of total offense, a season-low in a half.
However, in the second half, things opened up for the Chiefs and quarterback Patrick Mahomes as they scored 31 points and had 258 yards of offense.
For most of the game, as Reid said, the Patriots played aggressive man coverage and blitzed Mahomes to get the soon-to-be league MVP out of rhythm.
To combat the man coverage, Kansas City began to throw the ball to running back Damien Williams; a smart move considering New England’s struggles with covering running backs and the resources the Patriots deployed to Hill and Kelce.
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The Chiefs ran Williams against the Pats linebackers as much as possible, and Mahomes missed him on a would-be touchdown throw in the second quarter, but Williams hauled in all five of his catches for 66 yards and two touchdowns in the second half, adding another score on the ground.
If it wasn’t for Williams, and some chunk plays on unbelievable individual efforts by Mahomes, the Chiefs don’t make this a game in the second half.
7. Patriots’ Offensive Line Dominant in Pass Protection, Especially When it Mattered Most
On the day, a pass rush that led the NFL in sacks this season registered one quarterback hit on Sunday. One. The Patriots’ offensive line was terrific in pass protection on initial viewing. For most of the game, Kansas City pass rushers Dee Ford, Justin Houston, and interior rusher Chris Jones were ghosts, and this time it wasn’t because of a lightning-quick release by Brady who did hold the ball on occasion to wait for plays to develop downfield. Center David Andrews credited starting guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney for winning their one-on-one battles with second-team All-Pro Chris Jones in the interior, and said that the plan was to be aggressive and take it to Jones instead of allowing him to get upfield. Mission accomplished. We’ll have more on the offensive line later in the week.
8. Patriots’ Running Game Starts and Finishes the AFC Championship Game
Although the Patriots only ran for 3.7 yards per rush, the running game was massive in the win accounting for four of the teams five touchdowns and forcing the Chiefs into run-heavy fronts.
From the jump, it was clear that the Kansas City defense wasn’t going to allow the Patriots to run the ball efficiently playing with four down linemen and stacking the box with eight or sometimes even nine defenders.
And that presented an interesting chess match as New England opened the game in heavy personnel with two tight ends and two running backs on the field (fullback James Develin being one).
The looming threat of the Patriots’ running game, and New England’s ability to break off a few explosive runs made the Chiefs stay in that defense which opened up things for the passing game.
Let’s get to a few runs now:
First, the Patriots either saw something on film or Brady keyed on something in the Chiefs alignment that led to the Pats running a number of shotgun handoffs to James White on third and short.
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Here, White showed great patience to buy time in the backfield for left guard Joe Thuney to pull in front to block the corner on the edge, and the Pats got great blocks from Marcus Cannon, Gronk, and right guard Shaq Mason allowing White to convert on third and four.
Later on, the Patriots’ rushing attack showed off its diversity by springing Michel for a first-down carry on a zone blocking scheme as New England has mastered the outside zone scheme in one season, no easy feat.
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On the play, center David Andrews dropped the three-technique DT in the gap with Trent Brown kicking out the end to open the hole for Sony, and left guard Joe Thuney immediately climbed to the linebacker to clear the path downfield.
The numbers on the stat sheet don’t tell the whole story with the Patriots’ running game; it was a significant aspect of this one despite the low yards per carry average.
9. “Playoff” James White Was in the Building on Sunday Night
On his seven third-down touches, White, who’s as automatic in these games as Tom Brady these days, picked up six first downs; three through the air and three on the ground.
We went over the Patriots’ strategy to run the ball with White out of the gun on third and short, but he also made his presence felt in the passing game with four catches for 49 yards.
One of those third-down conversions came on third and seven and was a tremendous play by both Brady and White.
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To start the play, White chipped pass rusher Dee Ford rushing on the edge, and then released downfield one-on-one with a safety. Brady’s pocket movement and ability to deliver this throw under pressure was stupid good, but so was White’s adjustment on the pass to turn around and locate the back shoulder ball from his quarterback. You can tell those two have incredible chemistry.
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Before the half, the Patriots’ scoring drive was started by a 30-yard screen pass to White on first down. The play got started with a great block from right guard Shaq Mason, and then center David Andrews pancaked a defensive back downfield, but White made this into an explosive play by running through one tackle and then finishing off the run breaking a few more tackles downfield.
For whatever reason, the Patriots went away from White in the second half opting for Rex Burkhead, but White is every bit as clutch as anyone on this team.
10. Play of the Game: Tom Brady’s 25-Yard Completion to Rob Gronkowski
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So good, let’s watch it twice. Nothing much to add here. Just two GOATs making a play with the game on the line.