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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Julian Edelman loves road games, because you can quiet your doubters on the road in a way that’s impossible at home. He loves the road for its opportunity to prove you can accomplish something in front of those who don’t believe you can. He likes to poke the bear.
Edelman walks a fine line with the underdog stuff. Last week, he sold “Bet Against Us” T-shirts on his website. Edelman walked off the field at Arrowhead Stadium exactly how he wanted to Sunday, with the shrieks of his victorious teammates piercing the dejected silence of the crowd drifting out into the cold and the offseason, but it took two of the biggest catches of the Patriots’ season in overtime to make that happen. Midway through the fourth quarter, it looked as if Edelman might have won that bet for those he dared to pick against him when a sequence of events involving the receiver gave the Chiefs their first lead late in the game.
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“It’s part of the game,” Edelman said. “I always preach you’ve got to have a short memory, whether it’s good or bad. That was a bad play. I felt awful. But you’ve got to move on.”
The sequence of events Edelman needed to move on from began with the muffed punt that wasn’t — it doesn’t have a name yet, but it will get one. It came with 8:47 left in regulation after Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt knocked one to the Patriots’ 31-yard line, with Edelman deep to return it.
Edelman should have cleared out of the way. Instead, he let the ball bounce off the ground in front of him and up over his bicep, maybe touching his left thumb, maybe not. He didn’t field it, and Kansas City receiver Gehrig Dieter snatched the football and ran for the end zone. The play was ruled a muffed punt and recovery by the Chiefs.
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It was reviewed automatically, and for an eternity. Video replays weren’t clear, it seemed impossible to tell if the ball had grazed Edelman’s thumb or missed him by millimeters. Edelman knows the value of millimeters; just ask the Falcons. Regardless, it seemed like a tough call to overturn.
But then it was overturned, and there was outrage. Beer cans flew around Arrowhead Stadium until, just one play later, football justice was served.
Tom Brady targeted Edelman with his first throw of the ensuing drive. The ball bounced off Edelman’s fingertips — it certainly touched them that time — and into the hands of Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen. Two plays later Kansas City took its first lead of the game.
You know what happened next. On the game-winning drive in overtime, Edelman went over the middle and converted two gotta-have-it plays on third and 10, one for 20 yards and the other for 15, connecting with Brady as he always seems to this time of year.
3rd-and-10, 13:40— New England Patriots (@Patriots) January 21, 2019
Tom Brady pass short middle to @edelman11 to KC 45 for 20 yards#EverythingWeGot pic.twitter.com/qtdQlaozU0
“Jules is going to get open, Tom is going to find him, Jules is going to make the play,” Phillip Dorsett said. “It’s amazing. It’s something like I’ve never seen before between two players. They’re like brothers, big, little brother and their connection is second to none.”
In a game that both teams seemed to win and lose a dozen times over, Edelman came through in the end, and finished with seven catches on 10 targets for 96 yards. This is a player whose team struggled without him in the first month of the season, when he was suspended. Guilt comes with that. It’s also a player who missed last year with a torn ACL and who felt conflicting emotions watching his team go to a Super Bowl without him.
“He’s a competitor,” said Matthew Slater. “He’s going to take those things hard but he’s going to keep fighting. That’s the story not only of Julian Edelman, that’s the story of all 53 guys on this team.”
“A warrior,” Dorsett said. “A warrior. I’m glad he’s in my room.”
3rd-and-10, 12:51— New England Patriots (@Patriots) January 21, 2019
Tom Brady pass short middle to @edelman11 to KC 30 for 15 yards#EverythingWeGot pic.twitter.com/1nfxRLL5hz
Those two catches felt redemptive in a way, as did the other third-down conversion on that game-winning drive, made by Rob Gronkowski, whose play at the end of the Dolphins game was the difference between the AFC Championship game being played in Foxborough and at Arrowhead. It was the kind of ending that feels a little too neat and perfect, a little too Hollywood.
Especially considering this:
“It’s the first time I ever won on the road in the AFC Championship,” Edelman smirked after the game.
Nora Princiotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @NoraPrinciotti.