What a long, strange trip it's been.
Fans of the Grateful Dead will recognize the line as it was once sung by the legendary Jerry Garcia, as well as the title of a compilation album from the rock group released in the late 1970's. But for fans of a more-recent vintage, it will be hard not to look back, particularly over the last calendar year and wonder how in the world did all of this really happen?
It was one year ago that something now known as the "Ideal Gas Law" was first introduced to a sports-crazed public consciousness (thanks, Indianapolis Star). It was then forever-fastened to the NFL when reports began to surface the league was investigating the possibility that the Patriots deflated footballs prior to their 2015 AFC title game against the Colts.
In the next week, New England became a Super Bowl champion for the 4th time in franchise history. The following nine months of rumor, innuendo, accusations, opinions, investigations, court hearings, league punishments and appeals still do not have a definitive conclusion (thanks, NFL). But that hasn't stopped the Patriots from going about business as usual.
If "Deflategate," as it is somewhat now-derisively referred to, was little more than a concocted plan within the league to de-rail the Patriots from their current track, it failed miserably. If the subsequent flawed investigation(s) were part of a ruse from a few owners or lawyers hired by the league, tired of watching their teams come up short to New England, the gambit backfired. The joke is once again on them.
The Patriots, if you haven't checked lately, will be playing in their 10th AFC championship game over the past 15 seasons (thanks, Tom Brady & Bill Belichick), which is an unprecedented accomplishment in NFL history. Five straight AFC title games matches the NFL record once set by the Oakland Raiders in the '70's, but the Raiders only managed to win one of those opportunities.
The Patriots will attempt to win their third in this stretch of five, and their ninth overall – which would be more than anyone else currently in the American Football Conference. No wonder some would like to see the Patriots of today revert to their previous Patsy-ways of days long since passed.
Today is not that day. Tomorrow doesn't look good, either.
While some may take this particular accomplishment for granted, one who won't do that has been at the center of all of the attention while this long, strange trip has taken place. And, he's also been under the center, too.
"It's beyond what I'd ever imagined in my wildest dreams," Brady told WEEI this week, when asked about his soon-to-be double digit appearances in a league championship game.
"When you play with teammates like I have and you see what they go through over the course of the season, what they deal with in their lives personally, how that reacts to them professionally, kind of the blood, sweat and tears you put into it, you never take it for granted," he added.
No player in the history of the NFL has as many championship game appearances as Brady has, and 27 teams in the NFL don't have as many as he does.
In spite of the story that's become a non-story (or wrong story) over the past year, in spite of the NFL's gross, misguided and ill-advised overreach at ensuring "integrity" remains in place within the game, in spite of public persecution that may never be completely undone – the bottom line remains the same.
The Patriots are still truckin'. Jerry Garcia put it out there as well as anyone ever has.
"Sometimes the light's all shinin' on me, other times I can barely see. Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it's been.
"Truckin', I'm a goin' home. Whoa, whoa baby, back where I belong."
The conversion chart
Enthusiasm for reaching another AFC title game could be tempered somewhat when considering what the Chiefs accomplished in their efforts to win Saturday.
12-of-20 in 3rd down conversions, including four straight to open the game, against the New England defense led to a 38-minute to 22-minute advantage in time of possession. Maybe it's a good thing the Patriots had some of their offensive weapons return to the lineup, because it appeared KC did exactly what it wanted to do – keep the ball out of TB12's hands as much as possible.
It ultimately didn't work out for the Chiefs, but the issue surely will be revisited this week in preparation for the Broncos. Denver may have a better ground game, and there will be emphasis on their efforts to support a less-than-100% Peyton Manning. Getting off of the field on 3rd down will be part of the requirement for the Patriots' defense in order to play on Super Sunday.
No rush to judgment
Perhaps it was part of the game plan, in order to keep Alex Smith in the pocket as much as possible. He did rush nine times for 44 yards, with a couple of big gains on 3rd downs to keep drives alive, even if his legs couldn't deliver a "W."
There was never much of a pass rush generated on Smith, however. He threw 50 passes (completing 29), and while his primary go-to-guy in Jeremy Maclin was decidedly hobbled, he did complete passes to seven different receivers in the first half, and 10 overall. He had time to do that. There were zero sacks from the defensive front, which is a rarity for this season.
That will have to change in Denver, most assuredly.
Logan Ryan appeared to struggle in coverage, most notably on Albert Wilson's touchdown catch in the 3rd quarter. There was also a pass interference call against him while covering Jason Avant in the 4th quarter that led to (if it didn't prevent at the time) a score that pulled the Chiefs within seven points.
While Malcolm Butler and Justin Coleman also gave up some plays, it sure appeared KC was flinging arrows mostly in Ryan's direction. Given that Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and company are on the agenda for next week, the Patriots should pay especially close attention to how they view matchups with the Broncos' receivers.
Time keeps on ticking
This has been completely overlooked, and it probably should be when you win a game. But there should also be a little hesitation to saying "the Patriots are back," when that might not be the case.
Leading 27-13 in the 4th quarter, NE had the football at the KC 48 with 7:28 remaining. 59 seconds later, Ryan Allen kicked it back to the Chiefs, where a touchback put the ball on their 20. It was an opportunity squandered, certainly. Scoring even a field goal in this instance might have stripped the starch right out of Kansas City's shirts.
Instead, KC responded with a monster 16-play, 80 yard drive to pull within seven points. Maybe the game was already over, maybe it wasn't. But the inability to put points on the board – putting pedal to the metal – when given great field position to do so shows the Patriots aren't quite back to where they may have been earlier this season.
It's great to have previously-injured players return to the field, no doubt, and contribute for a playoff run. But it would also be great to have the players' execution in crunch-time return as well, if you're expecting anything more than just another trip to the Rocky Mountains this year.
*John Rooke is an author and award-winning broadcaster, and is in his 23rd year as the Patriots' stadium voice. Currently serving in several media capacities – which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" on Patriots.com Radio – Rooke has broadcast college football and basketball locally and nationally for 27 seasons and is a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame. *
Follow him on Twitter - @JRbroadcaster