FOXBOROUGH – Déjà vu. Super Bowl XXXIX. Bad clock management by Andy Reid.
The problem is that on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium, it almost worked.
But for a miracle catch by Julian Edelman late in the game, the Chiefs might have gotten the ball back with one minute left, no timeouts, but plenty of time to wind his way through a Patriot defense that did everything well except defend on third down and tie the game. Reid, who was the head coach of Philadelphia eleven seasons ago when his Eagles lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX, bled more than five minutes off the clock on the Chiefs’ final offensive possession of the season. The Chiefs did score a touchdown with a minute left, but they did not get the three and out everyone loyal to the visitors were certain they would get.
Instead, the Patriots got lucky on second down. Tom Brady threw a pass to the right side when the situation screamed for a run to force Kansas City to bleed their timeouts. The ball caromed off the shoulder of linebacker Tamba Hali and into the arms of Edelman right at the first down marker. Three kneeldowns later, the Patriots had a 27-20 win in the AFC Divisional Playoff game. The game had a typical “Patriot Magic” ending, but in truth the Patriots needed every bit of their injured stars that returned tonight, and despite substandard raw numbers, Alex Smith could very well have led his team to a titanic upset.
Edelman did have some early drops, but his mere presence galvanized the Patriot offense, which had looked so awful at times down the stretch. He hadn’t played since the win over the Giants, but immediately vaulted to the top of the receiving class, catching ten passes for 100 yards. Rob Gronkowski, who missed a few practices this week with knee and back issues, caught seven passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns. These two players underscored the importance they carry with them in terms of Patriot success.
Brady, meanwhile, completed 24 of 42 passes for 302 yards, threw two touchdowns, scored one of his own on a sneak, and produced a 103.5 passer rating. He looked much more comfortable in this game than he did in the two losses to the Jets and Miami to finish the season. With literally no rushing attack to fall back on, Brady was able to solve the normally potent Chiefs defense and directed the Patriots on two touchdown drives of 11 plays each. Ryan Allen was called upon to punt only three times.
The Patriot defense played well for the most part, but didn’t completely put the clamps on Smith and the Kansas City offense. Despite having Jeremy Maclin only at partial capacity due to a high ankle sprain sustained last week at Houston, Smith still was able to produce. His passing numbers aren’t outstanding, completing 29 of 50 passes for 246 yards and a touchdown. But he was the second leading rusher on the Chiefs, rushing for nine times for 44 yards and a 4.9-yard per carry average.
The biggest issue Bill Belichick will take issue with is the fact that the Chiefs were 12 of 20 on third down, way too high and not a good number to take with them into the AFC Championship next week. On the opening Chiefs’ possession, the first play went for a first down, then the Chiefs went 4 for 4 on the subsequent third downs. The fifth one was a Smith throw away, and Kansas City only got a 34-yard field goal by Chiro Santos despite a 17-play drive.
Kansas City had four drives of ten plays or more. Their final drive, which brought them to within seven points with 1:13 to play, took 16 plays. But in an eerie reminder of the end of Super Bowl XXXIX, the drive took 5:16 of game time. Like Eagle fans in 2005, Chief fans must have been screaming at the Chiefs for taking their sweet time. Reid showed the exact same pattern as in that Super Bowl. Score, get the onside kick, or else simply hold the Patriots and get the ball back.
The scary thing is that this strategy nearly worked. Trailing by seven points and even with Gronkowski recovering the onside kick, the Chiefs still had all three of their timeouts. A three and out would have given the Chiefs the ball back with perhaps 50 seconds left. It is not stretching things that Smith would have at least put the Chiefs in a position to tie the game.
On first down at the Kansas City 45 following the onside kick, Steven Jackson was stuffed by Eric Berry for a one-yard loss. Reid used his first timeout. The Patriots figured to do the same thing on second and third down, not wanting to risk an incompletion, or worse, an interception.
On second down, Brady decided to risk the game with a throw. He targeted Gronkowski, who was lined up in the right wideout position, on a slant in route. But the ball deflected off of Hali’s shoulder just before the pass got to Gronk. The ball then deflected off of Gronkowski’s shoulder and floated in the air right towards Edelman, who was lined up in the slot, at the line to gain for the first down. Edelman caught the ball, fell down at the 34-yard line, and school was out. Running the ball was still the better decision, but sometimes the Patriots get breaks like this. Not in the Super Bowl, of course, but often times great teams are just as lucky as they are very good.
The Patriots now have to play the waiting game as to where they will be next week. Everybody loyal to the Patriots will be rooting like crazy for the Steelers to upset Denver on Sunday at Invesco Field. If that happens, Pittsburgh will head to Foxborough next Sunday and the Patriots get home field back. Otherwise, the Patriots will have to trek to a city where they will be up against it. Despite the absence of receiver Antonio Brown and the limited capacity of Ben Roethlisberger, that will be cancelled out by a quarterback mess in Denver. Peyton Manning will start, he and his postseason baggage, and not Brock Osweiler, who might be the better choice to start for the Broncos. The game will come down to which team has the better quarterbacking, pretty much.
So root for Pittsburgh, and a home game next week. Baltimore did much the same thing three years ago. It can happen.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary