In a game that had more twists and turns than a trashy romance novel, the Patriots advanced to their third consecutive Super Bowl thanks to a 37-31 overtime victory in Kansas City. Tom Brady led a methodical 75-yard touchdown drive on the first possession of overtime, converting three straight third-and-long situations – two to Julian Edelman and the other to Rob Gronkowski – before Rex Burkhead finished things with a 2-yard touchdown plunge.
Here are some observations from the Patriots scintillating victory over the Chiefs, which puts New England in the Super Bowl for the 11th time.
-The fourth quarter featured 38 combined points, the most ever in a quarter of a championship game as the teams traded knockout blows throughout the final 15 minutes. Kansas City appeared to have the game won when Brady’s pass deflected off Gronkowski’s hands and was intercepted in the final minute, only to have a neutral zone infraction on Dee Ford negate the play. The Patriots eventually took the lead with just 39 seconds left on Burkhead’s first touchdown of the night, but Patrick Mahomes responded with a clutch drive that set up Harrison Butker’s 39-yard field goal to tie the game at 31. Both teams were immense with the game and Super Bowl on the line, and ultimately it was decided by the coin toss and Brady’s perfect throws to convert three straight third-and-10s, ending the Chiefs season.
-Prior to the final heroics, there was several important junctures in the fourth quarter. Burkhead got the call on a fourth-and-one from the Kansas City 25, only to be stuffed by Greg Sorensen in the backfield with the Chiefs trailing 17-14. A short time later, Damian Williams put the Chiefs ahead for the first time with a 23-yard catch and run on a screen.
-The Patriots defense was outstanding for the first three quarters with a combination of tight coverage and an at-times unstoppable pass rush. Mahomes was pressured almost immediately on virtually every one of his throws in the early part of the game. New England used some varied coverages but for the most part went with Stephon Gilmore on Sammy Watkins, J.C. Jackson on Travis Kelce and bracket coverage with Jonathan Jones on Tyreek Hill. It worked for a while, but then Kansas City seemed to figure things out. Jackson had a tough night, getting beat for a touchdown by Kelce and then was called for pass interference in the end zone against the tight end later. Jackson also was called for holding Watkins on a play in which Kelce fumbled and Dont’a Hightower recover. A play later he was flagged for a 23-yard pass interference penalty covering Watkins and a hold earlier as well. And on the final drive when the Chiefs desperately raced downfield, he was beaten for a big play by DeMarcus Robinson for 27 yards to set up the tying field goal.
-The pressure was immense at times as Kyle Van Noy, Trey Flowers and Adrian Clayborn were constantly in Mahomes’ face. Patrick Chung was also effective as a blitzer and Mahomes seemed flustered at times in the first half as a result. He never got in synch until the second half when he exploded for 31 points.
-Jackson wasn’t the only member of the secondary who struggled as Gilmore coughed up a few big plays to Watkins, who finished with four catches for 114 yards on the day. Watkins got loose for a 54-yard pickup in the second half with Gilmore beaten badly on the play.
-The Chiefs were in position to get out of the first half with just a 7-0 deficit despite being thoroughly outplayed, but Andy Reid got a little greedy. The Patriots faced a third-and-four from their 27 with 1:13 to go and were in no hurry to run another play. But Reid decided to call a timeout, and Brady hit White for a 5-yard gain that changed the complexion of the drive. Brady hit White on a screen on the next play and the back made a terrific run to pick up 30 yards down to the Kansas City 38. Two plays later, Brady hit Phillip Dorsett, who beat Stephen Nelson with a nice out-and-up for a 29-yard touchdown to make it 14-0. Had Reid not called the timeout, the Patriots were content to get to the locker room with the lead. But things didn’t work out that way and New England was in control.
-Brady changed the tenor of the game with an ill-advised throw into the end zone to close the second drive of the game. After opening the game with an almost perfect 15-play touchdown drive, the Patriots were in position to double the lead. Julian Edelman’s 11-yard punt return gave the Patriots the ball at the Chiefs 44, and quickly they moved to the 1 where they faced third-and-goal. Despite the fact that Sony Michel was running effectively near the goal line both last week and earlier in the game, Brady opted for a play-action pass and was picked off by Reggie Ragland trying to hit Gronkowski. Gronkowski was double-teamed by Ragland and Anthony Hitchens and the pass had no chance. The pick snapped a string of 237 consecutive passes in the postseason without an interception, which remains and NFL record.
-As was the case in the first meeting between the teams back in Week 6, Mahomes missed several chances to put points on the board. In the first half he found Tyreek Hill for 42 yards to put the Chiefs in prime scoring position, but on the next play he missed a wide-open Damian Williams in the end zone and overthrew him. Two plays later, Mahomes retreated and was sacked for a 14-yard loss by Trey Flowers, knocking Kansas City out of field goal range. In the second half, Mahomes again missed an open Williams in the end zone on the final play of the third quarter as the running back had a couple of steps on Dont’a Hightower. As a result, the Chiefs went to the final quarter trailing 17-7.
-The latter misfired was mitigated on the next snap as Jackson got spun around by Kelce and was forced to tackle the tight end in the end zone before Mahomes’ pass arrived. That moved the ball 13 yards to the 1, and on the next play Mahomes found Williams for the touchdown that pulled Kansas City within a field goal at 17-14.
-The Patriots had an interesting change on their inactive list as Obi Melifonwu suited up for the first time since Dec. 2 against Minnesota. Melifonwu is 6-4, 207 and has the athleticism to be involved in coverage against athletes like tight end Travis Kelce, but he entered the AFC Championship Game having played just 20 defensive snaps all season in games against the Jets and Vikings.
-The inactive list included Danny Shelton, Keionta Davis, James Ferentz, Deatrich Wise, Ufomba Kamalu, Duke Dawson and Stephen Anderson. Shelton was inactive for the fourth time but had played in the previous three games as the run defense showed improvement. With the Chiefs multitude of weapons on offense, the Patriots figured to use packages with extra defensive backs so the need for another big body up front wasn’t as urgent.
-Belichick tried to fool the Chiefs in the first half when he faced a fourth-and-1 from the Chiefs 42 when he rushed his offense off the field and put Ryan Allen and punt unit in. At that point the Chiefs sent the punt return unit on the field and Belichick was likely trying to catch Kansas City with too many men on the field. But the officials rightly forced the Patriots to wait before snapping the ball because when a team changes personnel on a play it must provide sufficient time for the opponent to do so as well. Ultimately that led to a delay of game penalty and a loss of 5 yards.