After 12 months of ideal gas law, the Wells Report in context, “more-likely-than-not,” warm drinks and trash cans, the Patriots are right back where they always seem to be at the end of January: they will play in the AFC Championship Game, for the fifth consecutive winter. A Patriots season that started with Scott Zolak screaming into the headsets of Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger looks like it might extend all the way to Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif.
The Pats punched their ticket to another conference title game with not-as-close-as-it-looks 27-20 victory over the Chiefs on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium. New England will play next Sunday either at Denver or at home against Pittsburgh, pending the outcome of Sunday’s playoff joust between the Broncos and Steelers.
Bill Belichick’s proud Patriots stand with the 1970s Oakland Raiders as the only NFL teams to make it to five consecutive conference championship games, and if you are a Patriots fan, you should be chanting, “Ich Bein Ein … Steelers Fan.” A Steelers win Sunday night means the road to the Super Bowl goes down Route One once again.
“Pretty special to get back to another AFC Championship Game,” said Tom Brady, who started his 30th career playoff game. “Whether we play here or whether we play there, we’re going to have to play really well.”
The Chiefs came to New England riding an NFL-best 11-game win streak. A Patriots week of mystery and uncertainty (Belichick had an unexplained shiner, Rob Gronkowski kept missing practice and Chandler Jones put himself in Norwood Hospital on synthetic marijuana) coupled with the team’s 2-4 finish had stripped Patriot Nation of its traditional postseason confidence.
No problem. All fears proved unfounded as the Pats jumped to a 7-0 lead in the first five minutes and never felt threatened by the Chiefs’ popgun offense. Kansas City’s safe gameplan and conservative execution is sufficient to beat most NFL teams, but it will not get the job done against the Patriots at home. This was a seven-point win that felt like a blowout.
“I’m really proud of our team,” Belichick said. “This week in practice was probably one of our best weeks ever. It’s great to move on to the AFC Championship Game. It’s always an honor to be part of that game … That’s what we’re here for. To win.’”
The Patriots set the tone right from the opening kickoff. The Chiefs won the coin flip, elected to kick off to the Patriots, then sat back and watched Brady carve them up like tenderloin on butcher paper. Re-united with his offensive line and receivers Julian Edelman, Gronknowski and Danny Amendola, Brady marched the Pats 80 yards in 11 plays, capping the touchdown drive with an 8-yard strike to Gronk in front of the Militia Men in the lighthouse left corner end zone. The Pats did not make a rushing attempt on the surgical drive.
“It was good to get off to a fast start,” Brady said. “We talked about that. You don’t want to play this team from behind … I thought we had a good plan.”
“Getting the ball in the end zone early was huge,” Belichick added.
Kansas City responded with a clock-eating 17 play drive that resulted in a 34-yard field goal. The big news in Patriots land was that defensive end Chandler Jones was not benched in the wake of his drug-induced all-nighter. Belichick, evidently, was not as interested in sending a message as he was in winning this playoff game.
The remainder of the half was a bit of a rock fight as New England receivers dropped a lot of passes and the Chiefs demonstrated an inability to mount a serious drive. A low moment for the visitors came when they took possession at the Patriots’ 36 and wound up punting four plays later. We saw some chippy stuff from both sides (a cheap shot by Amendola, roughing the passer on the Chiefs).
Late in the half, New England picked up the pace with a an 11-play, 98-yard touchdown drive, scoring on a quarterback sneak by Brady, which made it 14-3. The Chiefs put together a nice drive before intermission, but stalled near the goal and settled for a chip-shot field goal. New England led 14-6 at break. The Brady-Belichick Patriots are 93-1 in home games when they lead at halftime.
KC’s last real chance was snuffed out at the start of the second half when Chandler Jones (good thing Bill didn’t bench the guy) forced Knile Davis to fumble after Davis made a catch over the middle. A few minutes later Brady connected with Gronk for a 16-yard touchdown that made it 21-6 with 8:24 left in the third.
The Chiefs, who rely on turnover-free football to keep themselves in every game, don’t have the weaponry to come back from double-digit deficits. Down by 15, Alex Smith finally marched his guys across the goal line in the final minutes of the third period. A 10-yard touchdown pass to Albert Wilson made it a one-score game, 21-13, but the Pats answered with a couple of field goals, keeping the Chiefs at a safe distance.
“I think we can be sharper next week,” Brady said. “We’re going to need it.”
A victory next week would put the Brady-Belichick Patriots in their seventh Super Bowl and represent New England’s ninth overall trip to the ultimate game. The New England Patriots, once the joke of the NFL, but are now the gold standard of excellence; the best franchise in America’s most popular sport.