With top receivers healthy, Patriots look almost impossible to stop

The services of a healthy-enough Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady may be all the Patriots need to make another Super Bowl run.
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It’s not really complicated. It never has been. When the Patriots have Tom Brady throwing to a healthy-enough Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, their passing game stays in serious-damage-doing mode.

And when you add left tackle Sebastian Vollmer (ankle) back into the mix to steady out the offensive line issues, the combination of Brady having time to throw and front-line talent for him to target usually leads to the opponent having no chance.

As it turns out, the Patriots’ late-season offensive struggles weren’t a lot more complicated than the absence of players they can’t afford to miss. On Saturday at Gillette Stadium, for most of the day at least, the Patriots had their A-team back together against the Chiefs. And because of it, the hottest team in the NFL is going home for the winter, beaten 27–20 by New England in an AFC divisional round playoff game that never quite felt as close as the score indicates.

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All week long, the narrative surrounding the Patriots went something like this: Edelman, even if he returns to the lineup after missing seven games with a broken foot, won’t be as good as usual. Gronkowski, on the injury report with knee and back issues, is too hobbled to dominate. The offensive line is too makeshift to hold off Kansas City’s pass rush and keep Brady upright. And all the injuries that robbed New England of its mojo in the last six weeks of the regular season have taken their toll, with the Patriots having lost the NFL’s war of attrition.

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

New England became the first home team to win a game in this year’s playoffs, and it felt like a game we’ve watched here almost countless times before in the postseason. Meanwhile, Kansas City—11-game winning streak and all—made mistakes you can’t make against the Patriots, settling for field goals, turning the ball over, and not being able to capitalize on the few game-changing opportunities New England gives an opponent. The Patriots had a smart pass-happy game plan, and crisp execution for the most part, and when New England is healthy enough to run it, its short-option passing game is almost impossible to beat.

That’s where Edelman comes in. Playing 52 of a possible 59 snaps, the seventh-year receiver and favorite Brady security blanket was superb, notching his second career 100-yard receiving game in the playoffs, with 10 catches and 100 yards on a team-high 16 targets. Edelman hadn’t stepped on the field in two months since breaking his foot in Week 10 against the Giants, but it was his presence that made the Patriots seem Super Bowl-worthy once again.

New England’s record with Edelman in the lineup improved to 10–0 with the win, compared to just 3–4 without him. That’s about as cut and dried as it gets.

“I almost forgot how you feel after a game,” said Edelman, sitting at his locker after the game. “It was good to get out there. I felt comfortable.”

The Patriots probably almost forgot what it felt like to look up and see Edelman doing his thing, working the seams of the field, leaving defenders trailing behind him on those crossing routes and generally creating havoc. But his presence seemed to steady a New England team that had lost four of its last six regular season games and served to hit the reset button for the defending Super Bowl champions.

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“We didn’t do too well down the stretch, and we were playing against a really good football team that won 11 games in a row,” Edelman said. “We had a bunch of guys that went out there confident, and didn’t worry about what had happened in the past and are not worried about what’s going to happen in the future.”

Maybe because the future suddenly looks a lot brighter in New England, with so much of the gloom and doom swept away by the victory that advances the Patriots to their record-tying fifth consecutive AFC championship game next Sunday, with only the 1973–77 Oakland Raiders matching that feat at the conference title game level. All that stands in the way of New England and another Super Bowl trip is either a visit to top-seeded Denver, with its iffy Petyon Manning-led quarterback situation, or a home game against the injury-riddled No. 6 seed Steelers, should they upset the Broncos on Sunday.

“It feels good and I think it’s a testament to everybody,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “Obviously the end of the season didn’t go the way we wanted. But I think it helped us overall get some guys who didn’t have a lot of experience out there making plays and stepping up. And we fell short a couple times, but that paid off. And when you get in the playoffs, now the regular season doesn’t matter. It’s about how we play in the playoffs now.”

The Patriots jumped on the Chiefs early and raced to a 14–3 second quarter lead. Kansas City had trailed by 10-plus points just once during its remarkable 11-game winning streak, and the Chiefs’ defense had allowed an average of just 11 points a game during that span. But with Brady, Edelman and Gronkowski clicking again, New England put up 27 points, the most allowed by the Chiefs since Cincinnati scored 36 against them in Week 4.

Kansas City held the ball a whopping 37:51 compared to New England’s 22:09, but the Patriots made the most of their chances and kept the Chiefs on their heels, with Brady throwing the ball 42 times compared to just 14 rushes, with six of those coming via Brady runs. New England made no pretense of seeking offensive balance, opening the game with 14 straight passes, the most to start a playoff game since at least 1991.

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Getting great protection and getting rid of the football way too quickly for the Chiefs’ pass rush to get there, Brady was never sacked and completed 28 of 42 passes for 302 yards, with two touchdowns and a 103.5 passer rating. He also scored on a fiercely contested one-yard touchdown dive to put the Pats up 14–3, showing no ill affects of the Week 17 ankle injury that landed him on the injury report. And the sight of Brady and Gronkowski hooking up for touchdowns of eight and 16 yards had to send shivers through the rest of the AFC playoff field. Injury reports aside, Gronk was his usual dominating self, and took part in 54 of 59 plays.

“[A] beast,” Edelman said, in describing Gronkowski’s seven-catch, 83-yard, two-touchdown performance. “Any time the Clydesdale gets running, the crowd goes crazy. I was lifted.”

No one, however, lifted the spirits of Patriots Nation more than Edelman, whose absence largely coincided with the team’s late-season slump. With him back exploiting the gaps in a defense, New England’s offense punted just three times and scored three touchdowns in its four red-zone possessions.

“He’s a great player,” Gronkowski said. “I’m super proud of him, the way he worked to get back, the way he worked to get ready for a playoff game. Obviously I’ve been through some injuries and I’m telling you it’s just not easy to come back right in midseason and just have a performance like that. You’ve got to give him credit for all the hard work he put in to be ready and help this team.”

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​Edelman helped his team to a mind-boggling 10th AFC championship game in 15 seasons, and with one more win, its seventh Super Bowl trip of New England’s Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era.

“That’s an unbelievable task,” Edelman said of the fifth straight AFC title game trip. “People don’t realize it’s tough to get there. It’s an unbelievable honor to get to play with these guys and to go compete for an AFC championship again. You can’t take it for granted, because we know how tough it is to get there.”

Before this game, a lot of people didn’t seem to think this edition of the Patriots had what it took to get there. Their four losses in the past six games created doubt, and even in a wide-open AFC, New England looked nothing like a team peaking at the right time.

“You saw in the first round of the playoffs that every road team won,” Edelman said. “So it really doesn’t matter what happened in the past. The regular season is the regular season, and we put ourselves in a position to go out and get a bye, and that’s good. You’ve got to have a short memory, whether it’s good or bad, and that’s what we did.”

A short memory, and the services of a healthy-enough Edelman, Gronkowski and Brady, may be all the Patriots need to make another Super Bowl run. It sounds too simple, but on Saturday against the red-hot Chiefs, it seemed just that straightforward. New England got its best lineup back on the field, and its winning mojo made a comeback as well.