KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Rex Burkhead scored the game-winning touchdown. Tom Brady orchestrated the game-winning drive. Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski made the big catches.
But the real stars of the Patriots’ offense in Sunday’s dramatic 37-31 win over the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game were the five guys up front who usually don’t get much of the glory.
“Those hogs, they blocked their tails off tonight,” Edelman said about the offensive line. “We live and die through them.”
The Patriots racked up some incredible stats in Sunday’s win. They outgained the Chiefs, 524 yards to 290. They won the time of possession battle, 43:59 to 20:53. They ran 94 plays, compared with just 47 for the Chiefs.
The goal was clear — play keepaway from Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ No. 1 offense. And while Brady finished with 348 passing yards, the Patriots spent most of the game playing smash-mouth football with Sony Michel, Burkhead, fullback James Develin, blocking tight end Dwayne Allen, and the five guys on the offensive line.
The Patriots finished with 48 rushes and 46 pass attempts, but those numbers were skewed by the Patriots having to throw the ball 23 times in the fourth quarter and overtime. While the rest of the NFL is airing out the ball and using five-receiver sets, the Patriots have used an old-school approach in their two playoff wins — running the ball, power football, and ball control.
“We were just trying to do whatever we could to put points on the board, control the ball,” said Burkhead, who finished with 12 carries for 41 yards and two touchdowns. “We know they have a high-powered offense, of course. Any chance we get to keep them off the field and control the clock is good for us.”
The Patriots rushed 48 times for 176 yards and four touchdowns against the Chiefs. They only averaged 3.7 yards per carry, and seemed to hit a wall in the second half. But they still controlled the pace of the game on the ground, and finished off the game with three straight Burkhead runs, totaling 15 yards and a touchdown.
Michel had 29 carries for 113 yards and two touchdowns before giving way to Burkhead late in the game. James White had six carries for 23 yards, making four third-down conversions with runs out of the shotgun formation.
And Brady ended the game with a clean uniform for the second straight week. The Patriots didn’t allow a sack to Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and the Chargers, and they didn’t allow one to Chris Jones, Dee Ford, and the Chiefs on Sunday.
“Kansas City made some good adjustments, gave us some trouble there, kind of stalled us,” center David Andrews said. “But we kept fighting, kept battling, punched it in.”
It’s one thing for the Patriots to play smash-mouth football at home like they did in last week’s blowout win over the Chargers. There’s not much crowd noise at Gillette Stadium when the Patriots are on offense, and they can establish their tempo and fire off the ball.
But it’s quite another to do it on the road, like they did Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. The Patriots were one of the worst rushing teams on the road this season, finishing 29th with a 3.93 average, and 25th with only 97.9 yards per game.
The rushing average wasn’t great on Sunday, but the Patriots were dominating time of possession, and putting themselves in manageable situations. They were 13 of 19 on third downs, largely because they ran the ball so well on the plays before that. They also kept Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense on the bench for the first eight-plus minutes of the game, as the Patriots grinded their way down the field.
“We just tried to go out there and play aggressive, play in manageable down and distance — except for in OT we had some third and longs,” Andrews said. “But it was a great team win, the whole team battled, and we were able to punch it in there.”
Most impressively, the Patriots didn’t commit any presnap penalties, after committing a half-dozen of them in their last road game, a loss at Pittsburgh last month. There were no false starts, and only one delay of game penalty against the Patriots, on a punt.
“It’s a testament to all the guys, all the work we’ve put in all week,” Andrews said. “We knew it was going to be a great environment, and it was. It was loud, it was tough. But really, our guys prepared well, battled, just hats off to them.”
Brady, Gronkowski, and Edelman will always be the Patriots’ star players. But over their last four games, the Patriots have rushed for 273, 131, 155, and now 176 yards. The NFL may be a passing league, but the Patriots are going to the Super Bowl in large part because of their ability to run the football and control the pace of the game.
“I’m always impressed by our offensive line,” receiver Chris Hogan said. “Those guys stick together, and they work tirelessly throughout the week. Those guys, they put in so much preparation during the week, it shows up on Sundays, and it showed up in the last couple of weeks, in the biggest games when we needed them.”