The Patriots had a few head-scratching moments over the last quarter of the season: The surprise drop-kick against the Eagles, the decision to kick off to start overtime against the Jets (though we agreed with the thinking), and going run-crazy in the first half against the Dolphins.
But the Patriots put on their Serious Face for Saturday night's divisional-round game against the Chiefs.
No more messing around.
No trying to establish the run with a mediocre cast of running backs behind an inconsistent offensive line. No trick plays, unusual formations, or substitution free-for-alls. No feeding the ball to role players such as Keshawn Martin or James White.
The Patriots had their horses back in the lineup for the first time in nearly half a season — Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, and Danny Amendola, all back from or playing through injuries. And the Patriots were going to ride them for 60 minutes.
The Patriots can be one of the more varied and multiple offenses when they choose to be, but Saturday's 27-20 win was not one of those games. Of their 54 real snaps (they had four kneeldowns), the Patriots used the same personnel package on 49 of them — three receivers (Edelman, Amendola, Brandon LaFell), a tight end (Gronkowski), and a running back (White, mostly).
Amendola was mostly a decoy, drawing just three targets, but 24 of Tom Brady's 42 passes went to Edelman and Gronkowski, foot/knee/back injuries be damned.
The Patriots went with two wide receivers twice, four wide receivers twice, and three tight ends once, on the goal line. They handed the ball off just eight times overall, opting to put the game in the hands of their star quarterback and his star receivers. Martin played 10 snaps, tight end Mike Williams played seven, and Scott Chandler's only snaps were on Brady's touchdown sneak, and four kneeldowns. White played 42 snaps, but touched the ball just three times.
Brady operated out of the shotgun-empty formation all game, slicing up the Chiefs with his usual array of quick hitches, drag routes, and back-shoulder throws.
And the result was familiar to Patriots fans: A 100-yard performance by Edelman, two touchdowns for Gronkowski, and a convincing win that propelled the Patriots to their fifth straight AFC Championship game.
Other observations after watching the game tape:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ Brady’s brilliance was on full display against the Chiefs. He’s had better numbers this season — he was 28 of 42 for 302 yards and two touchdown passes — but his receivers dropped five passes. And his performance was about more than just the raw numbers. He sniffed out the Chiefs’ defensive alignment and found the correct receiver almost every time.
When the Chiefs were playing off coverage, he found Edelman across the middle (Edelman had eight catches for 82 yards between the numbers). When the Chiefs played press coverage, Brady threw pin-point back-shoulder balls to Gronkowski (one for a touchdown) and Edelman. He dialed up the perfect double-move for Gronkowski when he was lined up one-on-one for a touchdown, and pump-faking to cave the safety's ankles and finding Gronk wide open for another touchdown. And most importantly, Brady got rid of the ball quickly, avoiding a sack on all 44 of his dropbacks.
Brady was lucky that Marcus Peters didn't intercept his quick hitch to LaFell in the fourth quarter. And he was REALLY lucky Tamba Hali didn't intercept his pass in the final minute, and that the ball fell safely into Edelman's arms instead of the opponent's. But Brady was confident and in total control on Saturday, reminding us once again that he's the best quarterback to ever play the game.
■ The offensive line certainly held up well, as Brady literally took one hit all game on 44 passing attempts (Dee Ford got past Gronk on one passing play). The three interior players — LG Josh Kline, C Bryan Stork, and RG Shaq Mason (with David Andrews subbing for Stork for 16 plays when Stork was briefly injured) — deserve a lot of credit for neutralizing two excellent players, DTs Dontari Poe (one pressure, no stats) and Jaye Howard (one assist).
But we're not going to pretend that the five guys up front all magically turned into Anthony Munoz over the bye week, either. Brady's clean day was a result of the quarterback diagnosing the defense and getting the ball out quickly. And while Sebastian Vollmer deserves a lot of credit for playing on a sprained ankle, and Marcus Cannon deserves credit for slowing down Hali (1 tackle), the Chiefs were just as hurt as the Patriots. Star pass rusher Justin Houston played just eight of 58 snaps. He was more injured than the team let on during the week. Two of the four pressures against Brady came on blitzes from the secondary.
■ Another tough day for LaFell, who caught 3 of 5 passes thrown his way for just 6 yards and declined to speak to reporters after the game. It’s been a tough year for LaFell, who missed the entire offseason and training camp with a foot injury, then had a lot put on his shoulders when Edelman and Amendola got hurt. Martin’s 42-yard catch jump-started the 98-yard touchdown drive that propelled the Patriots to victory, but I’m not sure the pass was intended for him, and either he or Gronk ran the wrong route. White, used often as an outside-the-numbers receiver, didn’t make a catch until the third quarter, and I wonder why the Patriots don’t get him the ball more often because he showed impressive moves on a 29-yard catch-and-run. And Chandler hasn’t made a catch since the Week 13 loss to Philly. He’s either more hurt than we think, or has just completely fallen out of favor.
When the Chiefs had the ball
■ The Chiefs were a prime example of how overrated certain statistics or axioms can be when it comes to playing the Patriots. The Chiefs established the run with 32 rushes for 135 yards (4.2 average). They controlled the clock, holding the ball for 37 minutes, 51 seconds. They ran 89 offensive plays, compared with 58 for the Patriots. And they lost.
NFL teams are now 52-7 all time in the playoffs when holding onto the football for 37-plus minutes, according to Pro Football Reference. And teams are 26-28 all time in the postseason when running at least 80 offensive plays.
Ball control is nice, but only when you can push the ball down the field and put up points. Alex Smith's paltry 4.9 yards per attempt, and the Chiefs not being able to punch the ball into the end zone, negated their advantages in other areas. Their four scoring drives went 17, 11, 12, and 16 plays, and the Chiefs had no quick-strike ability. Smith's accuracy on deep passes was abysmal.
■ We counted only five true blitzes on the Chiefs’ 55 dropbacks, with Alex Smith hitting 3 of 5 passes for 31 yards, including that crazy 26-yarder to Jason Avant in which Smith avoided four sacks. The Patriots sent six zone-blitzes with Smith hitting 3 of 6 passes for 49 yards (another 26-yarder to Avant). And they sent just three pass rushers nine times, opting to contain Smith in the pocket. Smith’s 15-yard scramble on third and 13 came against a three-man rush. Jamie Collins should have made the tackle, but he overran the play, then slipped.
■ Jabaal Sheard did a lot of the dirty work, lining up at defensive tackle on passing downs, and finished with two pressures and a run stuff. Dont’a Hightower had a pressure, two hits, and a run stuff, and Akiem Hicks continued his strong play of late with a pressure up the middle and a run stuff. Chandler Jones got the start and was not disciplined by the coaching staff, but played just 40 percent of snaps. He entered the game with abdomen and toe injuries, and left in the fourth quarter with a knee injury. When Jones left, he had played 36 of 73 snaps. He finished with a sack and a forced fumble, but was pushed around in the run game by Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher and the tight ends.
■ Excellent game for Patrick Chung, who limited the Chiefs’ top weapon, Travis Kelce, to just 23 yards on six catches. Devin McCourty and Collins helped on Kelce as well, but Chung played every snap and didn’t let Kelce out of his sight in one of his most impressive performances this season.
■ Logan Ryan’s performance was much shakier, allowing six receptions on seven targets. Avant hit him for four catches for 69 yards, Jeremy Maclin caught an 11-yarder for a first down, Albert Wilson caught a 10-yard touchdown (though there wasn’t much Ryan could do against a perfect throw), and Ryan committed pass interference on Avant in the end zone.
Malcolm Butler allowed only three catches for 39 yards to Wilson, but got spun out of his shoes on a 19-yarder late in the fourth. And Justin Coleman played 67 snaps as the No. 3 corner over Leonard Johnson, only the second time in the last eight games Coleman has had significant game action after breaking his hand earlier this season. Coleman did a nice job on receiver Chris Conley, allowing just two catches for 16 yards and making a great open-field tackle.
Postgame Analysis: Chiefs at Patriots
The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin gives a postgame analysis on the Patriots 27-20 defeat of the Chiefs in Saturday night’s playoff game.