If the NFL is already considered a passing league, the New England Patriots took it to another level Saturday during the team's 27-20 victory in the divisional round of the playoffs against the Kansas City Chiefs in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Conventional wisdom favors a team's having a balanced offensive attack to be most effective, yet the Patriots don't fit conventional norms. As a result, Bill Belichick's squad will play in a fifth straight AFC Championship Game next week and the 10th in Tom Brady's 14 years as a starter.
What New England's staff does better than any other group of coaches around the league is build a game plan around its available talent.
"[Offensive coordinator] Josh McDaniels and Coach Belichick have done a great job of leading our offense," wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea told Bleacher Report in an earlier interview. "They take what the players do best and allow them to do that."
Even those around the league marvel at New England's ability to constantly adapt to its situation. Cleveland Browns tackle Mitchell Schwartz praised the Patriots and their chameleon-like scheme:
Tackle power in a 4 min scenario…interesting. One of the cooler parts about NE is every week they have a different offensive gameplan.— Mitchell Schwartz (@MitchSchwartz72) January 17, 2016
Right now, the Patriots are a pass-first offense. They also pass on second and third down too. Against the Chiefs, New England threw the ball 42 times compared to 14 runs. Quarterback Tom Brady was credited with six of those carries, and wide receiver Julian Edelman ran it once on a reverse.
Meanwhile, running backs Steven Jackson and James White combined for 21 yards on seven carries. This is both by necessity and design.
Once again, the Patriots adapted to their personnel.
Jackson is a 32-year-old running back well past his prime who signed with the team Dec. 21 after LeGarrette Blount was placed on injured reserve due to a hip injury. White, on the other hand, developed primarily into a third-down option and a receiver out of the backfield.
New England simply can't line up and smash the ball down a defense's throat. It doesn't have the horses to do so. Instead, McDaniels called multiple swing passes to the running backs and wide receivers Saturday with varying degrees of success. However, while these are considered passes, each attempt is merely an extension of the run game.
The Patriots always fall back on the fact they feature one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, though.
Brady is a true maestro at orchestrating the NFL's most adaptable offense, and it showed as he completed 28 of 42 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns. This performance became his ninth 300-yard passing game during the playoffs in a Hall of Fame career, which tied him with Peyton Manning for the most in NFL history, according to the Patriots.
What makes Brady special is his ability to accurately release the ball in short order. This became especially important against the Chiefs.
First, the quarterback continues to play behind a makeshift offense line that allowed the signal-caller to be pressured more this season than any other year of his career.
New England's wide receivers specialize in getting free releases off the line with tremendous short-area quickness.
Julian Edelman returned to the team's ranks for the first time in nine weeks after he broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot during a Week 10 contest against the New York Giants. The wide receiver wore a steel plate in his left shoe to protect his foot, and he clearly needed to shake off some rust, but the Patriots didn't let him ease into the lineup.
Brady targeted Edelman 16 times. The wide receiver finished the contest with 10 receptions for 100 yards. And the team certainly didn't appear wary of his recovering foot since he played in 52 of the team's 55 offensive snaps, according to the Boston Globe's Ben Volin.
"Everyone's sore," Edelman told ESPN.com's Mike Reiss after the win. "I finished the game and feel good enough to get ready to prepare for next week."
Brady seemed happy to have his favorite target back, per Reiss:
Tom Brady on Julian Edelman: "One of the most determined young men on this team. As much heart as anybody."— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) January 17, 2016
Edelman's heavy usage extended beyond Brady's familiarity and preference to throw to the former Kent State quarterback. His ability to gain separation created a tactical advantage.
Kansas City's defense is one of the league's most aggressive units, and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton loves to manufacture pressure beyond the team's natural pass-rush ability, especially considering Justin Houston continued to nurse a knee injury.
The Patriots smartly got the ball out quickly and barely allowed the Chiefs to create any pressure. As SmartFooball.com's Chris Brown noted, New England took what Kansas City gave it on a play-by-play basis:
KC DC Bob Sutton likes to stack the box with an extra guy and play man or match-man on outside. NE taking matchups https://t.co/0qfniw537a— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) January 16, 2016
Brady continually targeted Chiefs strong safety Ron Parker, because the defensive back struggled to match up against the Patriots' skill players. With Kansas City's heavy emphasis on man-to-man coverage, even an injured Edelman proved too much to handle.
Parker wasn't the only defensive back to struggle. New England even got the better of Pro Bowl free safety Eric Berry.
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is arguably the NFL's most difficult coverage assignment. No one in his six-year career has effectively shut him down. He's a nightmare to cover even for the league's best defenders.
However, McDaniels does a wonderful job of setting up Gronkowski to be successful. Brown and ESPN's Bill Barnwell discussed how New England found ways to get the All-Pro tight end open within the scheme:
Twice NE lined up with Gronk to line on backside of trips and Brady checked to widen him and gave him a 1-on-1 route https://t.co/1sXZxyBcRb— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) January 16, 2016
Pats played off prior tendencies on that drive. End-around after repeated motion, Gronk hitch-and-go after a couple stick routes earlier.— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) January 16, 2016
Once Brady saw that Gronk drew one-on-one coverage, he immediately checked to him as the primary option during the discussed play.
Berry is still trying to figure out what happened, as shown by The Cauldron:
Gronk's stop & go move pic.twitter.com/gP9Rrxxcvv— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) January 16, 2016
Gronkowski finished the contest with seven receptions for 83 yards and a pair of touchdowns. With his second score, the former second-round pick became the NFL's all-time leader in postseason touchdowns by a tight end with eight.
A combination of strong play-calling, smart quarterback play and talent at key positions separates the Patriots offense from the rest of the league.
New England doesn't need to successfully run the ball to win another Super Bowl, because opposing defenses will have enough trouble trying to slow Brady, Edelman and Gronkowski.