KANSAS CITY — If the Patriots were going to keep up the underdog charade, then this location was as good a place as any. After all, it was at Arrowhead Stadium, in September 2014, when the Chiefs drubbed Tom Brady and Bill Belichick by a 41-14 margin and outsiders began to wonder: Is this the beginning of the end?
In retrospect, how laughable.
The Patriots are about to play in their fourth Super Bowl since then; Belichick is in his 19th season coaching the team; Brady is now 41, and yet, we still have no idea when this remarkable run will end. That was the moral of the Patriots’ 37–31 win in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. The Patriots faced the most dynamic young passer we have seen in some time; a quarterback who has the arm and the confidence and the ingenuity to go toe-to-toe with a five-time Super Bowl champion; and who led his team to an overtime-forcing field goal when just 39 seconds remained on the clock.
And yet, despite Patrick Mahomes’ heroics, the Patriots were the ones hoisting the trophy named for the founder of the Chiefs at a makeshift podium stuffed into the visitors’ locker room. The Patriots were the ones headed back to the Super Bowl for a ninth time this millennium, while the Chiefs players filed out of the stadium down a narrow, crowded hallway that passed right by their opponent’s locker room and post-game press conferences.
At one of those press conferences, Brady admitted that he felt as excited as he’s been in a long time. “The odds were stacked against us,” he explained, “and it hasn’t been that way for us for a while.”
The Patriots hadn’t won an AFC Conference Championship Game on the road since Jan. 2005, when Brady was still in his 20s. And the Chiefs were determined to make the most of their home-field advantage. In fact, the night before the game, NFL security noticed a social-media post from a Chiefs fan suggesting the idea of pulling the fire alarm at 4 a.m. at the Patriots’ downtown hotel. NFL security worked with the city to prevent this from happening; their solution was to disable the fire alarms at the hotel but keep a fire marshal on site all night to meet safety code in case there was a legitimate fire emergency.
On the one hand, the underdog narrative was a laughable one, even though the Patriots were technically three-point underdogs entering this game. This was their eighth straight AFC title game. Belichick and Brady have a Super Bowl ring for every finger. But for much of this season, the Patriots just didn’t look quite as dominant.
“3–5 on the road, too old, not athletic enough,” special teams captain Matthew Slater recited in the locker room after the game.
“Hah!” said receiver Chris Hogan, who was standing behind Slater’s shoulder.
“There’s one of the non-athletic guys right there,” Slater said. “But hey, that’s alright. That’s alright.”
The low point of the Patriots season came in December. The Miami Miracle followed by the 17–10 loss at Pittsburgh, costing them home-field advantage and even leaving their ritual first-round playoff bye in doubt. They didn’t even wait until they returned home to Foxborough to rally; that happened, according to Slater, even before they left Heinz Field. What has followed since are the Patriots’ best four games of the season.
“It’s easy to have faith when things are going well, and it’s tangible, and you can see it in front of you,” Slater said. “But what faith is, is when things aren’t going well, and you can’t see how things are going to work out. That’s when it really matters … You can’t really say you have faith until you have really been in the fire. And we certainly have been in the fire this year.”
The margin in Sunday’s game was as razor thin as the space between Julian Edelman’s thumbs and the football on his fourth-quarter muffed punt return that was overturned in the Patriots’ favor. If the Chiefs had won the coin toss, and gotten the ball first in overtime, it was easy to imagine how this could have gone the other way. New England played a ball-control offense in the first half, running the ball with first-round pick Sony Michel, who had 113 yards on 29 carries, in order to keep the explosive Kansas City offense off the field.
But despite a 14–0 halftime deficit, Andy Reid’s team came roaring out of the locker room. On their first possession, Patrick Mahomes connected with Sammy Watkins on a 54-yard throw, and they were right back in it. “He threw it off his back foot, all the way across the field, so hat’s off to him,” said All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who was beat on the play. “That’s a great QB over there.” On the next play, Mahomes threw a 12-yard TD to Travis Kelce, and the frigid fans at Arrowhead were suddenly warmed up again. They were too good not to make this a game, but Reid’s only regret was not making his halftime adjustments before halftime.
The fourth quarter felt like it lasted four hours; the teams combined for 38 points, and the lead changed four times, before they each ended regulation with 31 points apiece. Then, Slater called heads for the coin toss, just like his father, Rams great Jackie Slater, always did, and he announced to the crowd at Arrowhead: “We want the ball!” The Patriots sideline felt the game was won at that point. “I got Tom Brady as a teammate,” Slater said. Sure enough, Brady marched the Patriots down the field: 13 plays, 75 yards, ending with Rex Burkhead’s two-yard touchdown run.
The Patriots roster may not have the most talent, in terms of absolute value, but what they do have is what they’ve always had—a collection of players who thrive in whatever role they are asked to take on that day. Take tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was equally vital as a bulldozing run blocker as he was as a pass-catcher, just months after he mulled retirement and Belichick explored trading him. Or Gilmore, who didn’t study Travis Kelce all week, but when the coaches asked him to switch responsibilities from Watkins to the dangerous tight end during the second half, said, hell yeah (Kelce finished with just three catches for 23 yards). Or Edelman, who two plays after his near-goof on the punt return had a pass deflect off his fingers and back into the hands of the Chiefs defense, came back in overtime with two catches to convert third downs on the game-winning scoring drive.
“That was a bad play; I felt awful,” Edelman said of the interception off his hands, “but you’ve gotta move on, and you’ve gotta look forward to the next time your number is called.”
It sounds so routine, but that’s what the Patriots do: They make the remarkable seem routine.
In one corner of the post-game locker room, Jason McCourty was relishing his first chance to go to the Super Bowl as more than his twin brother’s guest. In another, while linebacker Ramon Humber was packing up his equipment bag, he marveled to DB Keion Crossen that it had taken him 10 years—since his rookie year with the Colts in ’09—but he was finally headed back to the Super Bowl. “It took one year for me, bro,” Crossen, a rookie, said with a grin.
And then there was Brady. The last time he’d been in this locker room, four years earlier, he’d been beaten down and had been replaced in the fourth quarter by his once and future successor; a few days later, his rankled head coach would deliver his infamous “On to Cincinnati” press conference performance. Tonight, he’d passed for 348 yards and never once was taken to the turf by the defense that led the league in sacks.
It’s hard to imagine that game in 2014 was actually the start of the Patriots’ second dynasty years, the second cluster of Super Bowl wins that followed the first three after a decade-long gap. They won in 2014. And again in 2016. Now, they have another chance to win in 2018.
The Patriots are on to the Super Bowl, again. And the only question on the minds of everyone leaving Arrowhead Sunday night was, will this ever end?
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