The Patriots season marches on but not without some shaky moments and additional injuries. When all was said and done New England moved on with a workmanlike 27-20 victory to snap the Kansas City Chiefs 11-game winning streak.
Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots divisional round victory, which qualified New England for the AFC title game for the fifth straight year.
THIRD DOWN –The Patriots offense had a difficult time converting on third downs during the second half of the season but not so during the first half against the Chiefs. With Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski back on the field together, the Patriots converted their first four third downs and 6 of 8 overall in the first half. Gronkowski had four catches for 47 yards and a touchdown while Edelman had five receptions for 45 yards in the opening 30 minutes. Four of those nine catches came on third down, and one of Gronkowski's resulted in a touchdown. Edelman finished with 10 catches for 100 yards while Gronkowski added seven grabs for 83 yards and tacked on a second touchdown after the break. Certainly the hopes of Patriots fans were realized with the injection of life the offense received by having Gronkowski and Edelman back in peak form.
SUB LOOKS –The Patriots used a couple of different personnel groups to match up with the Chiefs offense. When Kansas City used two tight-end sets, the Patriots countered with three safeties with Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon. When the Chiefs used three wideouts, Justin Coleman got the bod as the nickel back over Leonard Johnson, who had assumed those duties periodically down the stretch with Coleman banged up a bit. Neither personnel group was all that effective on third down as Kansas City converted 7 of 11 during the first half. Things didn't improve much in the second half and Kansas City moved the chains 12 times in 20 chances for a 60-percent conversion rate.
NO RUN ZONE –It's been no secret that the Patriots running game has been dormant all season long but it was still curious to see the Patriots refuse to run the ball in the fourth quarter with a 14-point lead. The Chiefs turned it over on downs at their own 48 with 7:28 left in the game and the Patriots leading 27-13. Despite the solid field position and with the clock on their side, the Patriots chose to throw the ball three straight times with the final two falling incomplete to stop the clock. Making matters worse New England went with the no-huddle after a 6-yard completion to Edelman on first down, saving time for the Chiefs. When Kansas City got the ball back there was still 6:29 left, and eventually it was a one-score game.
BETTER LUCKY THAN GOOD –One sequence that may have raised some eyebrows came late in the game after Gronkowski recovered the Chiefs onside kick and the Patriots chose to throw to run out the clock. Unlike the previous series when the passes seemed odd, this decision made more sense … although not without some seriously scary moments. The Patriots took over with 1:12 left but Kansas City had all three timeouts so in order to close it out the Patriots needed to pick up a first down. There was next to no chance that Steven Jackson was going to move the chains with three runs, so after Jackson lost 2 yards on first down to set up second-and-12 from the Chiefs 46. New England chose to throw the ball at that point, and it almost ended in disaster when Tom Brady's throw deflected off Tamba Hali but went into the hands of Edelman for a 12-yard catch and a first down. Although there were 66,829 hearts that likely skipped a beat when Hali nearly had a game-changing pick, if the Patriots intended on closing the game out without their defense on the field then throwing the ball was essential to achieve that goal. With Brady at the helm Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels rightly trusted their quarterback to avoid a costly turnover and the decision paid off – barely.
EARLY STOPS –Even with the success the Patriots enjoyed early the game may have unfolded far differently if not for a pair of red-zone stops by the defense in the first half. After the Patriots opened the game with a touchdown drive, the Chiefs responded with a very impressive march of their own. Mixing some solid runs from Charcandrick West with some efficient play by Alex Smith, Kansas City ran 17 plays and converted four third downs to move to the Patriots 16. But the Patriots came up with a stop and forced a 34-yard Cairo Santosfield goal that made it 7-3. Later the Chiefs closed the half by getting all the way to the New England 9 while trailing 14-3 but again had to settle for 3 and the Patriots took a 14-6 lead into the locker room. Those stops allowed the Patriots to play the game on their terms and forced Smith and the Chiefs to chase all evening long, which is not how Kansas City wants to play. Belichick cited those drives as a key part of the victory in his postgame remarks.
TIME MANAGEMENT –Andy Reid is one of the best coaches in the NFL but clock management is not one of his strong suits. He had some struggles in that department when he was with the Eagles against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX and those problems were evident once again on Saturday. As the Chiefs were driving for a touchdown to cut the lead to 27-20, Reid had all three timeouts at his disposal. Albert Wilson caught a 19-yard pass to get to the 1 with just under three minutes left and the Chiefs tried to run it in with West on first down. West was stuffed but with 2:33 left, still plenty of time to run another play before the two-minute warning, but instead the Chiefs chose to change personnel, had trouble getting prepared and eventually watched the clock wind down. Instead of potentially scoring on the next play and having in essence four timeouts, Kansas City didn't get in until there was just 1:13 remaining. The Chiefs still had three timeouts but could have had at least another minute to work with had they handled things more efficiently. The winding clock all but forced Reid to call an onside kick, and the field position was paramount.
EXTRA POINTS –Stephen Gostkowski's first PAT gave him 118 career points in the postseason, which is the most in Patriots history. … Gronkowski's touchdowns were his seventh and eighth in the playoffs, moving him past David Givens for the most TD receptions in Patriots postseason history and ahead of Oakland's Dave Casper and Denver's Vernon Davis for the most in the playoffs by a tight end in NFL history. … Bryan Stork left the game in the first half with a right ankle injury but was able to return and finish the game. … The five straight appearances in the conference title game tie New England with Oakland (1973-77) for the most in NFL history. … The Patriots improved to 29-18 all-time in the postseason for a .617 winning percentage, and 18-4 at home. … Belichick tied Cowboys legend Tom Landry by making his 10th appearance in the conference title game. … Belichick improved to 23-9 (.719) in the postseason, which is the third-best winning percentage in history behind Vince Lombardi (.900) and Tom Flores (.727). … Brady made his 30th postseason appearance, tying him with Adam Vinatieri for the most all time. … Brady passed for 302 yards, marking the ninth time he's topped the 300-yard mark in the playoffs. That ties him with Peyton Manning for the most all time.