KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In more ways than one, Kansas City embraced this latest AFC Championship as a home game for the Chiefs, not only because it would be played at Arrowhead Stadium. All week long, this area and its football team reveled in the fact that the Lamar Hunt Trophy – named for the Chiefs' late founding owner – had finally come home.
Here's the historical context:
New England and Kansas City were founding members of the old American Football League in 1960. At the time, the Patriots went by Boston, not New England, while the Chiefs were located in Dallas and known as the Texans. They wouldn't move to Kansas City and become the Chiefs until 1963.
In January of 1967, the Chiefs appeared in the first-ever Super Bowl, falling to Green Bay 35-10. Three years later, K.C. defeated Minnesota 23-7 to claim the Chiefs' first NFL title.
That win represented the last time the Chiefs appeared in a Super Bowl. There wasn't an AFC Championship Game that year because, although the AFL and NFL officially announced plans to merge in 1966, the deal wouldn't be finalized until the 1970 season. So, Kansas City advanced to Super Bowl IV simply as champions of the AFL following the 1969 season. Richard Nixon was president.
The next year, in 1970, the merger became complete and, since 1984, the trophy given to the team who wins the AFC Championship has been known as the Lamar Hunt Trophy, named for the longtime majority owner of the Chiefs and one of the founding fathers of the AFL.
Entering today's game at Arrowhead, the Patriots had captured the Lamar Hunt ten times, but Kansas City hadn't ever done so. They had one chance in January 1994, but lost at Buffalo.
Kansas City had never hosted an AFC title contest before today. In fact, when the Chiefs conducted their first press conference of this past week back on Wednesday, they were able to display the traditional helmets of the participating teams alongside the Lamar Hunt Trophy for the first time ever. The Chiefs felt as if this was, at long last, their opportunity not only to show off "their" trophy, but keep it in town as well.
For the Patriots to pull off an upset in hostile Arrowhead, they would need to control both sides of the line of scrimmage, drain the clock as much as possible by running the ball effectively, and put the Chiefs in an unfamiliar position of having to play from behind at Arrowhead, thus take the loud home crowd out of the game.
"We knew it was going to be a tough, physical game," center/co-captain David Andrews said afterward. "We wanted to start fast and we were able to do that."
After losing the opening coin toss, the Patriots ended up winning it because the Chiefs elected to defer, giving New England the first crack at the ball. Looking as calm as though they were strolling a tropical beach, the offense replicated its opening drive from a week ago. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels dialed up mostly rushing plays as the Patriots marched 80 yards in 15 plays, with rookie RB Sony Michel punching in the final yard for the first score of the night.
New England's defense then did its job, pinning K.C. deep in its own end and sacking QB Patrick Mahomes on 3rd-and-10 after a possession of less than two minutes.
Working with a short field, the Patriots confidently, yet patiently got down again to the Chiefs' 1-yard line, moving the game clock into the early second quarter in the process.
Just when it looked like the Patriots were going to up the score to 14-0, QB Tom Brady threw a play-action pass into the end zone that was picked off by Kansas City LB Reggie Ragland. Mahomes and K.C. took over at their own 20 following the touchback. Again, though, New England's D came up with a huge run-stuff on 3rd-and-1, forcing the Chiefs to punt.
New England couldn't capitalize, though, as the Chiefs held the Patriots on a 3rd-and-1 run. However, facing a 3rd-and-9 from just outside the Patriots' red zone, Mahomes dropped back to pass and was dropped for a 14-yard loss by DE Trey Flowers. Rather than risk missing a long field goal, Kansas City chose to punt the ball back to New England. Earlier, Mahomes missed a wide-open Damien Williams in the end zone on a throw that likely would have tied the game.
Flowers' sack proved consequential, as Brady and the O – aided by a spectacular 3rd-down grab by RB James White – drove nearly the length of the field. Brady atoned for his earlier misfire with a wonderful pump-fake throw to WR Phillip Dorsett, who, despite being blatantly interfered with in the end zone, managed to come down with the ball and double New England's score.
A Kyle Van Noy strip sack of Mahomes nearly found its way into LB Dont'a Hightower's hands, which could have resulted in a scoop-and-score, but Mahomes fell on the ball to end the first half – a half the Patriots thoroughly dominated. New England held the ball for 21 of the first 30 minutes and shut the Chiefs' offense out at home at halftime for the first time under head coach Andy Reid.
"We talk about faith all the time in our locker room," special teams co-captain Matthew Slater told reporters inside a congested visitors locker room less than an hour after the final play. "It's easy to have faith when things are going well, when it's tangible, when you can see it in front of you, but faith is when you can't see what's in front of you and how things are going to work out, you still have to trust your process.
"You have to believe in the man next to you. That's when it really matters. You can't say you have faith till you've been in the fire, and we certainly have been in the fire this year – 3-5 on the road, too old, not athletic enough, but hey, that's all right. That's all right."
K.C. wasted little time in the third quarter, taking the opening drive of the second half all the way to cut New England's lead in half, thanks in large part to a 54-yard pass surrendered by CB Stephon Gilmore on 3rd-and-2. TE Travis Kelce caught Mahomes' next pass for a 12-yard TD.
Gilmore's teammates bailed him out on Kansas City's next drive, however.
The Patriots' defensive front continued to pressure Mahomes and force him into off-target throws. CB Jason McCourty then made a tremendous pass-defense on 3rd-and-long from deep in Chiefs territory and K.C. had to punt. Another short field gave Brady and the O another scoring opportunity, but they had to settle for a field goal from Stephen Gostkowski to make it 17-7 with four minutes to play in the third quarter.
That score remained as the fourth quarter started and the Chiefs moved the ball to New England's 14-yard line. The next two plays were a PI penalty against rookie CB J.C. Jackson in the end zone and a 1-yard TD toss by Mahomes to his running back Williams.
"That's been our journey, I think, throughout this entire season," cornerback Jason McCourty observed. "Our struggles on the road, starting off 1-2, there's always been something for us to overcome, something to bind us together.
"Throughout the adversity, between our young guys, our old guys, there's always somebody to pick you up, and always knowing there was time left on the clock, we always felt like we were fine."
The key sequence of regulation came with New England's offense facing a 4th-and-less-than-a-yard at the K.C. 25. Rather than kick a field goal, the Patriots ran Rex Burkhead, who got smothered at the line for no gain. The Chiefs took over down only three with 9:33 left in the game.
The Patriots' D held once again, but on the ensuing Chiefs punt, return man Julian Edelman appeared to touch the bouncing ball and a K.C. player recovered. But Edelman protested immediately to the officials, claiming he never touched the ball. Replay review confirmed Edelman's assertion and the Patriots maintained possession at their own 26-yard line. It may have been an even closer shave than the catch Edelman in Super Bowl LI two years ago.
Two players later, a Brady pass definitely touched Edelman's hands as the ball ricocheted off them and into a Chiefs defenders' grasp. Mahomes and K.C. had the ball deep in Patriots territory with about eight minutes left, but only needed 10 seconds to score and take their first lead of the night. Brady and the O responded, but once more faced 4th-and-less-than-a-yard at the Chiefs' 10. This time, a gaping hole emerged for Michel and he raced through it untouched to the end zone. With 3:32 to go, the Patriots clawed back on top 24-21.
An almost-INT of Mahomes in the end zone by Jonathan Jones wound up on the grass, and on the next play, Mahomes completed a long pass inside the 5. The Chiefs ran it in on the next play to regain their lead just before the 2-minute warning.
New England still had time and all its timeouts. A good kickoff return by Cordarrelle Patterson set up the final possession. A pass reception reviewed and overturned and an offside by the Chiefs negating a game-sealing INT were just two of the crucial plays that ensued. But it was Burkhead's final run, barreling into the end zone from four yards out, that looked like it decided the outcome, but with under a minute to go, K.C. tied the game with a field goal.
Slater correctly called "Head" to give the Patriots the ball. He revealed his reason, which he credited to his father, Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jackie Slater.
"God is the head of our life. So, we call heads. Simple as that," Slater smiled.
God may indeed be the head of their lives, but Brady had control of the offense, and Slater, among others, certainly, took comfort in that fact.
"I felt pretty good about our chances. Because we have Tom Brady as a teammate," he admitted. "I always feel good about my chances."
New England won the coin toss and, essentially, the game. The offense found its rhythm again and Burkhead, one more time, snowplowed his way into the end zone.
Game over… finally.
"I was thinking, 'Hopefully I can get this thing in,'" Burkhead chuckled as he recalled hearing his number called in the huddle right before the final play. "When it happened, it's a feeling you can't really explain… Yeah, it's fun. You get in, you hear everyone screaming – not the fans, in this case, but your teammates. It's a great feeling. I'm just happy to be part of this team."
"I think back at being a kid, playing Pop Warner football alongside my twin brother, [Devin]," McCourty mused later, "and I never could have imagined being here, in this moment, getting an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl. You just look up and say, 'Man, God is good, man.' It's just such a blessing to get to this point in our professional careers and do something special."
"No, it hasn't sunk in yet," rookie running back Sony Michel confessed with a shy smile when asked about the Super Bowl. "It's a surreal feeling, amazing feeling right now. I'm sure, sooner or later, it's going to sink in."
For so many years, the Lamar Hunt Trophy has resided in Foxborough, and that's where it will return. Kansas City had it back "home" for only one night, and only on loan, as it turns out.
"I mean, it's pretty unbelievable," remarked wide receiver Chris Hogan. "All I can say is that this locker room and all the guys, I'm so proud of how we worked throughout the season. There's been a lot of ups and downs. A lot of people counted us out in the beginning, didn't think we could come and win on the road. We just stayed with each other. Believed in each other, believed in our abilities. We knew if we prepared, we could get to where we wanted to be. We did and we've got a little bit more work to do."
Indeed, two more weeks, to be precise, when they'll face the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII.