Behind a stellar performance from quarterback Tom Brady, the New England Patriots are one win away from their second straight Super Bowl berth after defeating the Kansas City Chiefs, 27-20, in the AFC Divisional Round on Saturday.
Of course, as Bill Simmons noted, this is nothing new for the Patriots during the Brady-Bill Belichick era:
10 AFC title games in 15 years for Brady and Belichick.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) January 17, 2016
Brady almost single-handedly carried the Patriots offense, going 28-of-42 for 302 passing yards with three total touchdowns (one rushing). New England ran the ball only 14 times, with six of those carries coming from Brady.
The big story coming into Saturday's game was injuries, but all of the major question marks played. Rob Gronkowski (knee) and Julian Edelman (foot) suited up for the Patriots, while Jeremy Maclin (ankle) was in uniform for the Chiefs.
Gronkowski dispelled any concern about his health and production right away, as ESPN.com's Mike Reiss noted:
Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski snap tracker: He played all 11 snaps on the first drive. Working through knee/back injuries, he isn't held back.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) January 16, 2016
Brady immediately looked to Gronkowski and Edelman on the game's first drive, as the Patriots threw 11 straight passes to go 80 yards for a 7-0 lead. Gronkowski and Edelman combined for 67 of those yards, and Gronk capped the drive off with an eight-yard touchdown catch.
Edelman shook off a few drops to finish with 10 catches for 100 yards in his first game since Week 10. Gronkowski ended the game with 83 yards and two touchdowns on seven receptions while also rewriting New England's postseason record book along the way, per B/R Insights:
According to Alex Speier of the Boston Globe, Gronkowski became the 21st player since 1960 to record at least two multi-touchdown games in the playoffs. Around the NFL noted that New England's All-Pro tight end is on a playoff touchdown streak:
From NFL Media research: Rob Gronkowski has a receiving TD in each of his last 4 playoff games— Around The NFL (@AroundTheNFL) January 16, 2016
On the flip side, New England shut down Kansas City's key playmakers. Maclin, coming off a sprained ankle he suffered last week against the Houston Texans, had just 23 yards on two catches while seeing only three targets. Tight end Travis Kelce wasn't any better with 23 yards on six catches.
The last two drives before halftime—excluding the Patriots' kneel down to end the half—were a microcosm of how the game played out. New England was backed up at its own 2-yard line after a punt and a Danny Amendola unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, but Brady led the offense 98 yards on 11 plays to help give his team a 14-3 lead.
The Chiefs got down to New England's 9-yard line with less than 30 seconds remaining before the break, but they had to rush because head coach Andy Reid had already used two timeouts on their first drive.
Quarterback Alex Smith threw an incomplete pass on second down, was called for a delay of game before the next snap and then missed Chris Conley on third down.
Kansas City settled for a field goal, giving the Patriots a 14-6 advantage at halftime. Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk summarized the first half of action:
Chiefs settle for a field goal after wasting a down with a spike. Throwing timeouts away hurts, Andy Reid.— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) January 16, 2016
Reid's clock management came into play again late in the fourth quarter as the Chiefs completed a pass short of the end zone and huddled with less than two minutes to play while down by 14. They took more than five minutes before scoring with 73 seconds left to make it a one-score game, but Gronkowski recovered the onside kick to seal the victory.
The Chiefs looked energized when they received the ball to start the third quarter, running the ball well behind Charcandrick West. But Knile Davis fumbled after catching a pass from Smith, and New England recovered to stall the drive.
The Patriots wasted no time, going 69 yards in five plays. The drive ended with Gronkowski hauling in his second touchdown catch thanks to a tremendous stop-and-go route that faked out Chiefs safety Eric Berry:
According to Ross Tucker of NBC Sports, Brady showed what makes him a great quarterback on that play:
Brady audibled to that as soon as he saw Berry on Gronk. Stuff like that is why he's best ever.— Ross Tucker (@RossTuckerNFL) January 16, 2016
During the Brady era, per ESPN Stats & Info, the Patriots are unbeatable when leading by at least 15 points:
Since 2001, the Patriots are 62-0 at home when leading by 15 or more points at any point in the game (includes postseason).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 16, 2016
The Chiefs did respond with an excellent 12-play, 80-yard drive and found the end zone for the first time. Smith hit Albert Wilson from 10 yards out to cut New England's lead to 21-13 with two minutes remaining in the third quarter.
On that drive, Smith avoided multiple sacks before finding Jason Avant for 26 yards, likely causing New England fans to have flashbacks of Eli Manning in Super Bowl XLII:
How many Patriots does it take to sack Alex Smith? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ https://t.co/9gE46Pazxw— NFL (@NFL) January 16, 2016
Smith did not have a great game, finishing 29-of-50 for 246 yards and one touchdown, which will lead to more criticism about his ability to win against top teams in the playoffs. But he battled in the second half, when none of his receivers were providing much help.
Even the miracle catch by Avant was due in large part to Smith's ball placement and accuracy on the throw, though the veteran receiver did have his best game in two seasons, according to Reuben Frank of CSN Philadelphia:
65 yards for Avant is his most since Sept. 19, 2013, when he had 87 yards against … Andy Reid and the Chiefs.— Reuben Frank (@RoobCSN) January 17, 2016
The Chiefs are surely upset their season ended, but this was a terrific year for the franchise. The team rebounded from a 1-5 start, during which it lost star running back Jamaal Charles for the year to a torn ACL, to win 11 straight games and earn its first playoff victory since 1994.
Meanwhile, the Patriots keep chugging along in the playoffs like they always seem to do. Brady's ability to thrive despite the absence of a running game is astounding. It helps to have Gronkowski back in his role as one of the league's most unstoppable forces.
Even though the Patriots entered the postseason having lost four of their last six games, they seem like AFC favorites heading into next week—regardless of whether they play at home against Pittsburgh or go to Denver—because of their incredible track record.
While not the way he wanted to end the season, Reid did praise his team following the loss, per BJ Kissel of Chiefs.com:
"I'm proud of my guys. They battled like crazy this year." ~ Andy Reid.— BJ Kissel (@ChiefsReporter) January 17, 2016
The tight-lipped Patriots did not divulge a lot of information following their victory, though a clearly excited Belichick talked about what playing in the AFC Championship Game meant, per Ben Volin of the Boston Globe:
One of New England's stars who battled injuries leading up to the game, Edelman, left no doubt about his status for next week, per Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal:
Edelman: "Everyone's sore. I finished the game and feel good enough to go next week. If it goes, it goes."— Mark Daniels (@MarkDanielsPJ) January 17, 2016
It was reported by Kimberly Jones of NFL.com that Edelman was "barefoot & headed for X-ray" after the game.
Never one to be satisfied with a performance, Brady told reporters he feels the Patriots "can be sharper next week," per Daniels.
The Patriots now have eight days to do so.