KANSAS CITY, Mo. — First, the Patriots were going to Kansas City. Now, they’ve got Georgia on their mind.
Rex Burkhead plunged over from the 2-yard line in overtime to give the Patriots a 37-31 win over the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium.
Bill Belichick’s club now heads to its third straight Super Bowl, where it will face the Rams in Atlanta in two weeks.
It’s the NFL-record 11th trip to the big game for the Patriots, who tied the Steelers for the all-time record with their 36th playoff win. Now they get a chance to tie the Steelers for most Super Bowl wins with six.
Patrick Mahomes, the NFL’s new young gun, threw three second-half touchdown passes and the Chiefs erased a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit and tied it late in regulation, but it was savvy veteran Tom Brady who led his club back to the Super Bowl.
Just moments after Harrison Butker tied things at 31 on a 39-yard field goal with 31 seconds left, Matthew Slater yelled “heads” for the overtime coin flip. It came up heads and the air went out of Arrowhead.
Similar to their OT win in Super Bowl LI, the result felt inevitable when the Patriots’ offense took the field.
“There was no doubt,’’ Stephon Gilmore said when asked about his confidence level when OT started. “Those guys make it hard for us in practice, so there was no doubt in our mind [they would score]. We got a great football team. We’re mentally tough and physically tough.”
Brady powered a 13-play, 75-yard drive in the extra session, delivering clutch throw after clutch throw and there was nothing the Chiefs’ defense — or Mahomes — could do to stop him.
Brady faced three third and 10s on the drive and calmly converted all of them, firing lasers to Julian Edelman for gains of 20 and 15 yards, and finally Rob Gronkowski for 15.
“We put ourselves in some tough situations with some third downs but the playmakers on our team — Jules and Gronk and Tom and James White and Rex —were able to step up and make big plays for us,’’ said Chris Hogan, who had five catches, including a 10-yarder to start the winning march.
More Brady heroics
Brady was brilliant, completing 30 of 46 passes for 348 yards and a touchdown. He got everyone involved, hitting eight targets, led by Edelman, who caught seven passes for 96 yards.
Brady’s late-game heroics rendered his two interceptions moot. They were costly, however.
The quarterback’s first pick came from the 1-yard line and prevented the Patriots from taking an early 14-0 lead early in the second quarter. His second, which tipped off Edelman’s fingers, led to a touchdown that gave Kansas City its first lead of the night at 21-17 midway through the fourth. It was the first of five lead changes in the fourth quarter and overtime.
A game for the big boys
New England’s offense received contributions from all its skill players, but it was the big uglies up front that controlled the trenches and allowed Brady and Co. to move the ball consistently.
Josh McDaniels was able to call a balanced attack because of the work of David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Joe Thuney, Marcus Cannon, and Trent Brown.
The offense rushed for 176 yards and Brady was given a clean pocket all night. The vaunted Chiefs pass rush never got their hands on him.
“Those hogs, they blocked their tails off tonight,’’ said Edelman. “We live and die through them.’’
That’s a start
The Patriots certainly got the start they wanted, embarking on a lengthy and time-consuming initial drive after the Chiefs elected to defer following a coin toss win.
Striking a near perfect balance (Sony Michel 32 rushing yards, Brady 38 passing yards), Brady moved his troops 80 yards on 15 plays, taking a whopping 8:05 off the clock.
The journey exhausted the Chiefs’ defense and wore out the Arrowhead Stadium crowd, which just minutes earlier had been at full throat.
Michel opened the drive by ripping off an 11-yard run and closed with a 1-yard touchdown burst.
The Patriots’ defense played perhaps its finest first half of the season, blanking the high-powered Chiefs offense and, for the first time this season, making Mahomes look like the 23-year-old that he is.
The baby-faced assassin completed just 4 of 8 passes for 65 yards over the first 30 minutes. The Patriots mixed their coverages, consistently took away his primary reads, and came at him with relentless pressure, resulting in three sacks for minus-43 yards.
Hill slowed down
The Patriots made Tyreek Hill, the most explosive playmaker in the NFL, a nonfactor.
Belichick and Brian Flores employed two of the team’s fastest players — cornerbacks Jonathan Jones and Keion Crossen — to shadow Hill with some bracketed safety help.
Hill finished with just one catch for 42 yards and lone punt return resulted in an 11-yard loss.
Jackson hangs in there
J.C. Jackson was called for three penalties, including one ticky-tack pass interference call, but overall did a solid job covering Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.
Jackson (6 feet, 198 pounds) was at a sizable disadvantage against the 6-5, 260-pound Kelce, but stuck with him throughout. The tight end was held to just three catches for 23 yards.
Many have said Kelce has dethroned Gronk as the league’s premier tight end, but not on this night. Gronkowski finished with six catches for 79 yards.
Just as he did in Week 6 after a rough first half against the Patriots, Mahomes bounced back, throwing for 230 yards after intermission.
“They made a couple of adjustments and kicked us a little bit [in the second half],’’ said Gilmore. “There were a couple of flags that could have gone either way, but you know, we’ve got to play cleaner.’’
Chiefs coach Andy Reid dismissed any notion that Mahomes was nervous at the start.
“No, I think it was probably the pressure,’’ said Reid. “[The Patriots] were able to get home a little bit, so we changed a couple of things up to get it right.’’