It's getting difficult to remember Super Bowls without the New England Patriots.
New England clinched a spot in its third straight Super Bowl with a 37-31 overtime victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in Sunday's AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium. This will be the Patriots' ninth trip to the Super Bowl since they drafted Tom Brady in 2000.
Brady played the role of hero yet again, picking apart the Chiefs secondary on the game-winning overtime drive before Rex Burkhead plunged in for the touchdown. It mirrored New England's final drive of regulation, when Brady set up Burkhead's touchdown with a 25-yard strike to Rob Gronkowski before Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker forced overtime with a 39-yard field goal.
Brady prevailed in the quarterback showdown with Patrick Mahomes, finishing 30-of-46 for 348 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Kansas City's signal-caller went 16-of-31 for 295 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions, but he was unable to cap his potential MVP campaign with a conference crown.
The Legend of Tom Brady Somehow Continues to Grow
Quarterbacks with five Super Bowl titles, three league MVPs and 14 Pro Bowl nods on their resumes aren't supposed to add legacy-defining moments at age 41.
Nobody told Brady that.
No. 12 faced three 3rd-and-10s on the game-winning drive in overtime. Each time, he stood strong in the pocket and delivered to Julian Edelman twice and Gronkowski once for crucial first downs before Burkhead put the finishing touch on the win.
That came after another incredible drive near the end of regulation, which made it all the more special.
The Chiefs went up 28-24 after a Damien Williams touchdown run with 2:04 remaining, but Brady connected with Edelman, Chris Hogan and Gronkowski with 10-plus-yard strikes to set up Burkhead's first touchdown. While Brady needed a little luck—he had an interception overturned because Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford lined up in the neutral zone—he took advantage down the stretch.
The AFC Championship Game felt like a potential passing of the torch with Mahomes primed to take over the league as the likely MVP, but Brady made clutch throw after clutch throw and won a shootout with Mahomes for the second time this season.
The 38 combined points in the back-and-forth fourth quarter was similar to New England's 43-40 victory in Week 6, and Brady added yet another nerve-wracking win to his all-time great legacy.
Sunday's game may not reach the level of the 28-3 Super Bowl comeback over the Atlanta Falcons whenever Brady retires, but it was a reminder to Mahomes and the rest of the league's young quarterbacks that he remains the king until further notice.
Despite Loss, Mahomes Leaves Chiefs Fans Feeling Fantastic About the Future
Sometimes, quarterbacks add to their legacies even in a loss.
That's what Mahomes did Sunday.
Kansas City fans already had plenty to look forward to with Mahomes. He's only 23, and in his first year as a starter, he tallied 5,097 passing yards, 50 touchdowns and 12 interceptions during the regular season.
He mixed in side-armed throws, no-look passes and magical moments while largely avoiding mistakes throughout the year. On Sunday, Brady threw two interceptions while Mahomes stayed turnover-free.
It would have been easy for Mahomes to buckle under the pressure of Sunday's game. He was going against the dominant Patriots, who are regulars at the Super Bowl and have a brilliant head coach in Bill Belichick. He was also in a shootout with arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, but he didn't blink down the stretch.
It appeared as though the moment was too big for Mahomes when he and the Chiefs offense went scoreless in the first half, but the home team put up a jaw-dropping 24 points in the fourth quarter alone. The Texas Tech product had two touchdown passes to Williams and a deep completion to Demarcus Robinson to put the Chiefs in field-goal range after Burkhead's first touchdown gave him only 32 seconds with which to work.
However, New England won the coin flip in overtime and never gave Mahomes the chance to answer Brady, which underscored the inherent flaws of the NFL's overtime system. It was a back-and-forth showdown between perhaps the best quarterback in league history and his potential heir apparent, but only one had a chance to dazzle in the extra period.
For as much as that will sting throughout the offseason, Mahomes proved he is capable of delivering in the playoffs. As such, Chiefs fans have plenty to feel good about despite the crushing loss.
Patriots' 3-Headed Monster at Running Back Will Be Super Bowl X-Factor
Brady will get the headlines after Sunday's showing, but the Patriots will need their three-headed monster at running back to come through again in the Super Bowl.
The Los Angeles Rams were 23rd in the league in rushing yards allowed per game during the regular season. The New Orleans Saints didn't stick with the run in Sunday's NFC Championship Game despite leading for much of it, as Mark Ingram had only nine carries and Alvin Kamara had only eight.
New England has the personnel to ensure it won't turn away from the run during the Super Bowl.
Sony Michel tallied 113 rushing yards on 29 carries against the Chiefs, Burkhead had the two huge touchdowns and James White finished with four catches for 49 yards as a valuable weapon out of the backfield.
The trio helped keep Mahomes on the sidelines early in the game during a 15-yard, 80-play drive on the first possession that lasted more than eight minutes and a 90-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter.
Los Angeles features the pass-rush combination of Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, which New England will need to figure out how to counter. The Patriots won't want Donald and Suh teeing off on the 41-year-old Brady.
The best way to prevent that is by controlling the line of scrimmage with Michel and Burkhead and getting the ball out of Brady's hands quickly with White as a dump-off option. Look for plenty of that in Atlanta.
The Patriots will face the Rams in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Feb. 3.