The New England Patriots like the motto “Do Your Job.” Their coach, Bill Belichick, uses it often, and it’s one of those football cliches that actually applies to a winning approach, particularly when it comes to January football.
So in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, it was hardly surprising that New England — which hammered the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17 to advance to Super Bowl LI— managed to avoid the same pitfalls that sank the apparently still-maturing Chiefs in a razor-thin 18-16 divisional-round loss to the Steelers a week ago.
The Patriots did not commit any egregious drops or ill-timed penalties. There were also very few missed shots downfield, at least to the naked eye, and their linebackers filled their alleys, wrapped up and tackled.
If you’re a frustrated Chiefs fan who is still smarting after another divisional-round disappointment and wondering why you’re now being forced to watch the Patriots play in the Super Bowl for the seventh time in 17 years, it’s best to start there. Not only did New England simply do to the Steelers what the Chiefs could not; they also put on a clinic for what championship football really looks like.
“We knew we had to play perfect and we didn’t do that,” Steelers guard David DeCastro said. “Give them credit.”
Start with the mistakes. The Patriots hardly made any Sunday; they didn’t turn the ball over once, and were only penalized twice for 19 yards. The Chiefs, meanwhile, lost the turnover battle 2-1 last week and were penalized six times for 60 yards against the Steelers, with the most notable being a holding call on tackle Eric Fisher that negated a game-tying two-point conversion.
And while the Patriots didn’t have any game-changing drops, the Chiefs had three against the Steelers, including one on a big passing play to tight end Travis Kelce that could have boosted quarterback Alex Smith’s marginal stat line — 20 of 34 for 172 yards with one touchdown and one pick.
But Smith shared some blame, too, as he missed some shots downfield, particularly to receiver Tyreek Hill. In retrospect, it’s hard not to juxtapose his performance with that of Patriots star Tom Brady, who eclipsed Smith’s divisional-round numbers by halftime Sunday and finished 32 of 42 for 384 yards and three touchdowns by carving up a defense that has been vulnerable against the pass all season.
“He ripped us apart,” Steelers defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt said.
Steelers safety Mike Mitchell said every time the Steelers left someone open in the flat, Brady found it.
“Tom Brady is elite … he’s no joke, man,” Mitchell said. “We were expecting to play the best and it doesn’t get any better than (No.) 12.”
Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett even went so far as to compare Brady – whose primary battery mate Sunday was steady-but-unheralded receiver Chris Hogan, who caught nine passes for a franchise postseason record of 180 yards and two touchdowns — to some notable NBA point guards from the past 20 years.
“John Stockton, Jason Williams, Chris Paul — guys like that make the team better with the way they distribute the ball and make things happen, and Tom’s like one of those great point guards you see in the NBA,” Bennett said.
But for all the Brady-led offense’s brutal efficiency – the Patriots led 17-9 at halftime and by as many as 27 on this night – the defense provided some championship lessons as well.
Start with the way they marginalized the Steelers’ 14th-ranked run offense, which sliced up the Chiefs for 171 yards in 34 carries a week ago. Against the Patriots, the Steelers ran out of a lot of the same “11” — or three-wide — personnel that they did against the Chiefs.
But the Patriots had a plan for this. They mixed in a seven-man box at times to discourage the run, and in some passing situations, they used a “33” front — three defensive linemen with three linebackers — to give them added beef up front.
“Everybody was just doing their job, making sure everybody was in the gap they were supposed to be and trying knock to line back as best we can,” Patriots defensive tackle Alan Branch said. “We tried not to give them anywhere to run at all.”
The Chiefs tried some three-man lines last week, too, but also used some dime sets with two interior linemen, which the Steelers chewed up regularly. Against the Patriots, Pittsburgh only managed to rush for 54 yards in 20 carries, making them one-dimensional as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 31 of 47 passes for 314 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Now, that’s not to say the Patriots didn’t get a break or two Sunday. Bell, who churned out 170 yards in 30 carries against the Chiefs, suffered a groin injury in the first half Sunday and finished with a mere 20 yards in six carries. His backup, D’Angelo Williams, is no slouch; he led the AFC in rushing after the first two weeks while Bell served a suspension. But the Pats — who even had a backbreaking goal-line stand in the second half — still managed to play physical and control their gaps, something the interior of the Chiefs’ defense struggled with all game (and all season, really).
Patriots defensive end Chris Long said the Chiefs’ tape against the Steelers last week helped them prepare.
“It helped a lot,” Long said. “Bell and the O-line is so unique, and as a group, they’re as good as anyone in the league. It took a lot of very unique prep.”
Against New England, Pittsburgh looked a lot like the Chiefs did the week before. They committed more penalties, more turnovers and more mistakes. Their kicker, Chris Boswell, even missed an extra point, just one week after he went a perfect 6-for-6 on field goals — a playoff record — against the Chiefs.
“We didn’t (make) enough of the plays … championship-level football, we didn’t do enough of it,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
All that, of course, helped the Patriots lock up a victory that will send the Brady-Belichick combo back to the Super Bowl, where they will try to earn their fifth ring together.
If the Chiefs — who spoke about their Super Bowl aspirations all season — hope to take the next step, they have to be more disciplined on offense and stop beating themselves with the focus drops and penalties. The quarterback has to make more plays, and the run defense — led by the defensive line and linebackers — has to be more stout. These have been tenets of the “Patriot Way” for a long time, and Sunday’s game was yet another example of that.
This marks the second year in a row the Chiefs lost to a team in the divisional round that was dismissed in the AFC Championship Game by an opponent that had found a way to do all the things they could not. A third would be extraordinarily difficult to swallow.
The good news for the Chiefs is that the Patriots were actually that team last year, when the Denver Broncos harassed Brady and hit him 17 times one week after the Chiefs hit him only once. Yet, the Patriots bounced back and again find themselves in the big game.
“We worked harder than we ever have in the offseason — we thought about getting to this point and getting over this hump,” Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan said. “It was something that was talked about, and it was something we executed.”
If the Chiefs and coach Andy Reid — who will be responsible for molding a sometimes-erratic offense into a more consistent threat — use this offseason wisely, work diligently toward those goals and learn how to play winning January football, maybe they can pull a New England in 2018.
If they don’t, they’ll once again be sitting at home, wondering what could — and maybe should — have been ... much like Pittsburgh was on Sunday.
“We work our whole lives for this — even as a kid, I dreamed of this moment,” Steelers offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert saiid. “To know we could taste it, it was so close. We didn’t do enough to get the job done.”