KANSAS CITY – It was perhaps the most wonderful déjà vu in Patriot history.
Routine? Matthew Slater called heads. Coin came up heads. Ballgame. Seen this before?
The Patriots took command of the AFC Championship Game early, dominating the Kansas City Chiefs early on on Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium. But a foolish end zone interception by Tom Brady kept the Chiefs in the game, and in the end the teams had a fourth quarter for the ages. Young Patrick Mahomes and Brady acted like gunslingers, and the game predictably went to overtime.
Slater called the coin toss right, just like in Super Bowl LI. Brady took the Patriots down the field, like two seasons ago in Houston. With some incredible third down conversions along the way, Rex Burkhead (not James White) ran it in from two yards out four minutes and fifty seconds into overtime, giving the Patriots a 37-31 win and the right to face the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII in two weeks.
The Patriots head to their third straight Super Bowl, and fourth in the last five years. Despite losing the turnover battle, you the Patriot fan never really thought the game was lost. Your pulse might have quickened during the fourth quarter and overtime, but you never lost faith. That is because you have seen this before, many times.
Brady is the type of player who can shake off two interceptions and still have enough to deliver a garrison finish. Brady led the Patriots to touchdowns on their last three drives that didn’t include a kneeldown. He was able to find his receivers with regularity, and despite some bumps along the way, was able to defeat a tough home opponent in one of the hardest places for a road team to win in the NFL.
Before we go any further, major props have to go out to the next great star of the NFL, Patrick Mahomes. Ten to fifteen years from now, one might be talking about Mahomes like they talk about Brady now, or at least somewhat in that context. Despite completing less than 50% of his passes at the end of the game, he did manage to rally his team from down 14-0 and 17-7 to make the game a classic in the fourth quarter. He ended up with three touchdown passes, two more than Brady, and the only reason he didn’t wind up in the winner’s circle is that he never got to touch the ball in overtime.
The Patriots broke out of the box and dominated early. They took the opening kickoff and did exactly what they had to do. Brady led the Patriots on a 15-play, 80-yard drive that consumed nearly seven minutes, with Sony Michel finishing it off with a one-yard touchdown run. The Patriots got the ball back six plays later and once again made with the ball control, driving from the Chiefs 44 to the one-yard line, and we’re now into the second quarter.
On the verge of putting the Chiefs down and shutting up the crowd early, Brady made an uncharacteristic mistake. On the third play of the second quarter, facing third down and goal at the Kansas City one, Brady play faked to Michel and tried to hit Rob Gronkowski with a lob pass in the end zone. He underthrew the ball and it went right to linebacker Reggie Ragland.
Give the Patriots credit. The interception wound up being benign other than holding down the score. Following a 29-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Philip Dorsett in the final minute of the first half, the Patriots went into intermission up 14-0. This was the first time a Chiefs team coached by Andy Reid was shut out at home in the first half.
Mahomes started right in on the Patriots just after halftime. On the third play of the third quarter, Mahomes hit Sammy Watkins for a 54-yard bomb after he ran by Stephon Gilmore. One play later, Mahomes hit Travis Kelce on a slant route to make it 14-7. The Patriots were able to notch a 47-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski to end the third quarter up 17-7, but Mahomes was full of confidence and seemed primed to stand toe to toe with Brady the rest of the way.
The fourth quarter will go down as one of the most exciting quarters in recent NFL postseason memory. On the second play of the quarter, following a 33-yard dump pass from Mahomes to Damien Williams (the replacement for the disgraced Kareem Hunt), Mahomes found Williams from one yard out to make it 17-14 Patriots. The Patriots got the ball back and drove from their 24 to the Kansas City 25, and faced fourth down and less than a foot. Rather than kick a safe field goal, Bill Belichick went for it and Burkhead was stuffed for no gain.
The Patriots held the Chiefs three and out, and Dustin Colquitt punted to Julian Edelman. The ball bounced in front of Edelman, then he went to pick it up and appeared to muff the punt. The Chiefs recovered the muff, but after replay referee Clete Blakeman ruled that Edelman didn’t touch the ball as it skipped by him, something Edelman contended immediately. The Patriots received a lucky break as they kept the ball at their own 28.
But two plays later, the Patriots gave the ball back. Brady tried to hit Edelman in the left flat, and the high pass deflected off Edelman’s fingertips and into the arms of linebacker Daniel Sorensen. On second down, Mahomes hit Williams with a screen pass to the left, the entire Patriot defense bit right, and Williams had a 23-yard touchdown pass and the Chiefs led for the first time, 21-17.
But back came the Patriots. 75 yards and ten plays later, Michel ran it in from ten yards out to put the visitors up again, 24-21. But Mahomes led the Chiefs back on the next drive, parlaying two iffy penalties on J.C. Jackson and a 38-yard bomb to Watkins into a two-yard run by Williams to make it 28-24 Chiefs.
The Patriots likely let Williams score. They got the ball back with 2:04 left, and Brady had all three timeouts. He used up all but 39 seconds, hitting Edelman and Gronkowski for 25 yards each, and Burkhead finished it with a 4-yard touchdown to put the Patriots back up, 31-28.
39 seconds was enough for Mahomes, even with one timeout. He hit Spencer Ware for 21 yards, then Demarcus Robinson for 27 yards, the first catch of the night for both men. On second down and ten at the Patriot 21, with 11 seconds left, Reid opted right then to go for the tying field goal. Harrison Butker nailed the 39-yard field goal to send the game to overtime.
If you liked the overtime of Super Bowl LI, this one was much more difficult and much more stressful to watch. Three times Brady faced third and ten, and three times he converted. At the Patriot 35, he hit Edelman over the middle for 20 yards. At the Kansas City 45, he hit Edelman again on a crossing route for 15 yards. At the Kansas City 30, he hit Gronkowski for 15 yards. Perched at the Chiefs’ 15, Burkhead covered the final 15 yards on three carries, for ten, three and two yards for the win.
Brady finished 30 of 46 for 348 yards, one touchdown and two picks. Edelman led the team with 96 yards on seven catches. Despite Burkhead having the fourth quarter of his life, Michel finished with 113 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
The Patriots now get a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVI with the Rams, who beat the New Orleans Saints in overtime at the Superdome, 23-20 on a walkoff 57-yard field goal by Greg Zuerlein. The Saints were victimized by a horrid non-call of either pass interference or a personal foul on Nickell Robey-Coleman, after he slammed into New Orleans wideout Tommylee Lewis before the ball arrived late in regulation. Sean Payton fumed in his postgame presser after the NFL admitted the official blew the call. But it’s still the Rams and the Patriots in two weeks.
The Patriots opened as one-point dogs, but shortly thereafter they went up to 1 ½-point favorites. It should be a great game, perhaps as thrilling as their first matchup 17 years ago.
The Patriots won only for the second time ever at Arrowhead Stadium, and it took overtime and a gargantuan effort by Brady to pull it off. It is a well-deserved AFC Championship for the Patriots, albeit “still another one” for the dominant NFL franchise.
And the Patriots should always keep a roster spot for Slater, even after he cannot play anymore. Oh, those correct coin toss calls. Money.