While the streaking-hot Kansas City team that arrived at Gillette Stadium Saturday evening had its chances throughout, it was a rejuvenated Patriots team that took care of business in the AFC Divisional Playoff with the 27-20 victory over the Chiefs to push Bill Belichick's team to the AFC Championship Game for a record-tying fifth-straight season.
With Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman back in the fold together and making plays, Tom Brady used a mostly-shotgun, no-huddle march on the game's opening drive to take a 7-0 lead. The quarterback threw passes on all 11 plays on the assault on the Chiefs defense, completing eight throws for 80 yards.
Gronkowski converted a third-and-13 on the drive with 32 yards and then capped the march with an 8-yard touchdown. Edelman chipped in with two catches for 24 yards, including an 11-yard reception on third-and-10.
Kansas City tried to answer the opening scoring drive with its own long march, going 64 yards on 17 plays but only came away with a 34-yard field goal. Even though Alex Smith's team went four-of-five on third downs on the drive, the fact that it came away with just the three points set the tone of missed opportunities for the visitors on the way toward a defeat they'll likely regret and analyze for some time in the Midwest.
Even after Kansas City kicked too many field goals, dropped would-be interceptions and failed to take advantage of short fields, Gronkowski had to handle an onside kick attempt inside of two minutes to play and Edelman had to haul in a 12-yard deflected pass for a first down to close the door on the visitor that never gave up.
In the end, New England did its job. Despite a week filled with potential distractions and land mines, the Patriots prevailed and move on to the AFC title game yet again to take another step toward defending its Super Bowl title.
Certainly it wasn't perfect. Offensively the ground game was non-existent. The third down defense was not ideal, struggling early and then allowing 12 of 20 conversions overall. The Chiefs had more first downs, more yards and dominated time of possession (37:51 to 22:09).
But the Patriots finished with more points. And that was all that mattered.
"First of all it's great to win today. Proud of our team. We've kind of been battling along here for a few weeks," Bill Belichick said to open his press conference. "This week of practice was probably one of our best weeks ever in terms of focus and concentration and everybody being on top of it.
"Getting the ball in the end zone early was huge. Red zone defense was big early in the game.
"We're excited to be a part of the [AFC title] game," Belichick concluded. "We'll try to have our best game of the season."
After praising the work all his team and coaches have done Belichick summed it up perfectly.
"That's what we do. That's what we're here for, is to win," Belichick said.
Yet again they did just that, with the season on the line.
"It's pretty special to get back to an AFC Championship Game," Brady said. "We have to get as healthy as we can and try to put together our best game of the year."
Before moving on to next Sunday's AFC title game – either in Denver against the Broncos or back at Gillette Stadium hosting the Steelers – here's a look at some of the individual highs and lows from the hard-fought win over the Chiefs:
Rob Gronkowski –The big All-Pro missed practice twice last week and reportedly spent time at a hospital getting injections, dealing with knee and back injuries. But at game time, Gronkowski was his dominant, game-changing self. He opened the scoring with the early touchdown and added 16-yard score in the third quarter. The All-Pro finished with seven catches for 83 yards and the two scores. He also reminded the world that Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce – another big, athletic, No. 87 – is far from being comparable to one of the greatest tight ends to eve play the game.
Tom Brady –Getting his weapons back, the quarterback got back to putting up impressive production in the passing game. Brady completed 28 of 42 passes for 302 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 103.5 passer rating. Brady was not sacked and even had a 10-yard scramble to the pylon to set up what was his own 1-yard rushing score on the ensuing snap.
Julian Edelman – While the night wasn't perfect – Edelman had a handful of drops, including one that he nearly deflected into a potential pick-six interception to Sean Smith – the slot receiver was back moving the chains and injecting life into the Patriots passing attack. He converted the first third-down of the game on the opening scoring drive. He then moved the sticks one final time to close the game out. Overall Edelman returned from missing the final seven games of the regular season with a broken foot to catch 10 balls for exactly 100 yards.
Offensive line – Many thought that if the Patriots lost or struggled, it could be due to an offensive line that struggled down the stretch in the regular season. But with Sebastian Vollmer getting back on the field at left tackle, the group put forth a very impressive performance against a dangerous Kansas City pass rush. Brady was not sacked and was hit only once. That's far cry from late-season contests when the quarterback was hit a dozen-plus times. There was some early pressure, but the quick pass game got going and the line got better in protection as the day wore on.
Run D – It wasn't horrific, but going against an offensive line missing its starting center and right guard New England's defensive front got pushed around at times. It didn't help that Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo missed time to injury. Overall the Chiefs ran the ball 32 times for 135 yards for a 4.2-yard average. Charcandrick West, Alex Smith and Knile Davis each had runs of 11 yards or longer. West had 61 yards on 17 attempts, while Davis had six carries for 30 to boost the ground game. Kansas City's banged-up offensive line got solid push and helped the Chiefs stay very balanced most of the evening, even while trailing throughout.
Brandon LaFell –The veteran receiver was targeted early on some strange plays looking to get him the ball in space or behind the line. It didn't work. Nothing really did. LaFell finished with just three catches for 6 yards on five targets. Such a key figure last postseason in winning a Super Bowl – including big touchdowns against the Ravens and Seahawks – the big receiver is now mostly an afterthought in the offense. He also was the target on a throw that nearly ended in a Marcus Peters interception, though it's hard to tell if it was his route that was an issue or a bad throw by Brady.
Steven Jackson – It's probably not fair to expect too much from the veteran in his just his third game in New England after sitting out the entire season. But Jackson is seemingly a real non-factor on offense. The Patriots ran the ball just seven times with running backs, Jackson had six of those for just 16 yards, with a long run of 8 yards. He continues to look slow to the line. Josh McDaniels also chose not to run the ball with a two-score lead with just more than six minutes to play, a situation that would seem to be perfect for a big, sure-handed, veteran runner. Jackson got to play in his first playoff game since his rookie year in 2004, but nothing much came from it.
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