Negating Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce set this win in motion
Sign up for Point After, our Patriots/NFL newsletter
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — They were the burning questions leading up the AFC Championship game: Who could corral the Cheetah? Who could take down Zeus?
Blazing-quick receiver Tyreek Hill and chiseled tight end Travis Kelce were Kansas City’s biggest playmakers not named Patrick Mahomes, the sensational slinger responsible for getting the ball to them.
Through 17 games, nobody had any answers. Nobody could solve the puzzle. The Patriots, however, had a plan. They would double down and man up. Literally.
Bill Belichick alternated his speediest corners, Jonathan Jones and Keion Crossen, and put them right on the line of scrimmage opposite Hill, giving the receiver very little cushion and staying on his hip throughout the route. Over the top, safety Devin McCourty played cloud coverage, hovering in center field and shading to Hill’s side to provide a deep second layer of protection.
Nearly every time Mahomes looked in Hill’s direction, he was blanketed and bracketed. It was suffocating, and it had a trickle-down effect. It forced Mahomes to hold on to the ball and allowed the Patriots to apply consistent pressure. They sacked the fleet-footed Mahomes four times and landed nine total hits.
A prime example of how effective the strategy was came on Kansas City’s initial drive. It ended when Kyle Van Noy sacked Mahomes for a 14-yard loss on third down. The quarterback was caught staring at Hill, who had Jones on his hip and McCourty bearing down. As Mahomes waited for a window that never opened, Van Noy chased him and dropped him.
Hill, who averaged 5.6 catches and 91 yards per game coming in, was held to just one catch for 42 yards.
“Yeah,’’ Mahomes said simply when asked if the Patriots’ plan was a good one. “They doubled [Hill] on like 95 percent of the plays.’’
McCourty finished with three tackles, but numbers don’t tell the story of how much he affected the Chiefs offense. His looming presence gave Mahomes pause and kept Hill bottled up.
“We did a good job [on Hill],” said McCourty. “It wasn’t a one-man effort with that guy. He asked us a couple of times why we didn’t leave him one-on-one. I told him he should like the game plan.’’
As for Kelce, the Patriots changed up their strategy on the 6-foot-5-inch, 260-pound tight end. In the past, rugged safety Patrick Chung would draw the assignment. On Sunday, another young cornerback, J.C. Jackson, got the call.
Despite the size difference (Jackson is 6 feet, 198 pounds), Kelce couldn’t get out of his own way. He got caught up in traffic at the line and had Jackson in his shirt down the field. Kelce, who caught 110 passes for 1,444 yards in 17 games, was held to 3 catches for 23 yards.
“They challenged us,’’ said Mahomes. “They came up and played man. Not a lot of teams have this year. They put people in our face to see how we responded.’’
Upon further film review, here are some other things that stood out as the Patriots secured their 11th trip to the Super Bowl.
■ Missed opportunity
One play after Hill’s lone catch, Mahomes had a chance to tie the game but sailed an end zone throw to Damien Williams.
At the snap, Kelce picks Van Noy (no call), allowing Williams a free release on a wheel route down the left side. Mahomes sees him but is forced to rush his throw because Chung is applying pressure up the middle despite two huge offensive linemen trying to engulf him.
If Mahomes completes the pass, it’s a 7-7 game. Instead, he’s sacked two plays later and the Patriots score on the ensuing drive for a 14-0 lead.
■ Sleight of hand
For all of Tom Brady’s fantastic throws — and there were plenty — the pass he didn’t make was one of his best.
On a second and 10 from the Kansas City 49, Brady set up under center and immediately turned to his left as if he were throwing a quick strike to Cordarrelle Patterson, who helped sell it by leaping.
The entire Chiefs front bought it as Brady spun and handed a draw to Sony Michel, who had a four-lane highway in the middle of the field to run through.
■ Third degree
Josh McDaniels’s play-calling was terrific. After Julian Edelman’s number was called twice on third-and-10s in overtime, everyone in Arrowhead was figuring it would go his way again on a third third-and-10.
Everyone including Daniel Sorensen. The Chiefs safety got caught eyeballing Edelman (one of many correct predictions by Tony Romo during the broadcast) and took a step in — allowing a clean alley for Brady to hit Rob Gronkowski for a 15-yard gain.
Three Rex Burkhead runs later, the Patriots are in the end zone and off to the Super Bowl.
■ Building blocks
The offensive line did an exquisite job run blocking and also received help from James Develin, the tight ends, and receivers.
One example came on Brady’s drop pass to Patterson in the first quarter. After Brady motions for Patterson to stay put, the receiver comes in motion and takes Brady’s flip. As he turns the corner, Patterson receives big blocks from Edelman, who hammers the much bigger Anthony Hitchens, and Gronkowski, who manhandles Justin Houston.
As a bonus, Kendall Fuller gets caught up in the mess and can’t get to Patterson, who runs for 15 yards.
■ Can’t touch this
You can’t pour enough accolades on the offensive line. Dante Scarnecchia’s band of merry savages were also stout in pass protection, keeping one of the best pass rushes in the league in check.
Brady was rarely touched. For one of many examples, on Chris Hogan’s acrobatic 11-yard catch in the fourth quarter, Brady has loads of time before unloading the ball.
The only thing sweeter than Hogan’s one-armed effort was the combo block Joe Thuney and Trent Brown put on Chris Jones. First Thuney engages him and then Brown sends him halfway to Palookaville with a vicious shove.
■ Free and easy
The amount of times Edelman was given a free release to run crossers was astonishing. How you don’t make life at least a little bit miserable for Brady’s most trusted target is a head scratcher.
■ A wrecking machine
Not sure there’s a more underrated linebacker in the NFL than Van Noy. The versatile veteran was seemingly everywhere Sunday, registering 10 total tackles, 2 sacks, and a forced fumble.
■ Referee was in position
Just before Kansas City’s Dee Ford was called for a critical fourth-quarter neutral-zone infraction, you can see the line judge put his hand on his flag even before the snap. When the ball is snapped, he immediately drops his flag, giving the Patriots a free play. The infraction was costly, as it wiped out Charvarius Ward’s interception.