KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Take a bow, Bill Belichick. In the distinguished canon of your coaching career, this is one of your greatest game-planning masterpieces.
If you’re looking for the most valuable Patriot from the Patriots pulsating 37-31 overtime victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in Sunday’s AFC Championship game, look no further than Fort Foxborough’s resident genius.
His Hoodieness pulled out all the stops at Arrowhead Stadium and pulled off one of the most impressive and satisfying playoff victories of his distinguished tenure. Sun Tzu said that every battle is won before it’s ever fought. Belichick was in full Sun Tzu mode to coax the Patriots to their first road playoff victory since the 2006 season. The Nobody Believed in Us New England Patriots won on the strength of an unbelievable game plan.
The Patriots won this game before it went to overtime in Arrowhead Stadium and Rex Burkhead plowed in from two yards out, before they even touched down in Kansas City. It was won by Belichick and his coaches, who formulated a brilliant, cohesive game plan that involved both sides of the ball limiting the passing pyrotechnics of Patrick Mahomes and the league’s highest-scoring offense.
The Patriots turned this into a game of keep away, and because of that they get to keep playing into February for the third straight year, becoming the first team since the Buffalo Bills (four straight from 1990 to 1993) to advance to three straight Super Bowls. Of course, it was Belichick as the New York Giants defensive coordinator who slowed down that famous K-Gun Bills offense to help the Giants win Super Bowl XXV.
That game plan ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This one should be framed for posterity as well.
The first rule of football is that you can’t score if you don’t have the ball. Mahomes and the Chiefs made the most of their touches, especially in the second half, when they scored 31 points. But ultimately they didn’t have the ball enough to win this game. That was by Belichick’s design.
The team that seems to be immune to time, playing in its eighth straight AFC title game, pounded the rock and drained the clock. Tom Brady and Co. had the ball for 43 minutes and 59 seconds to just 20 minutes and 53 seconds for the Chiefs. The Patriots ran 94 plays to just 47 for the Chiefs, who averaged 62.5 plays per game during the regular season.
The game ended the way it started, with Mahomes helpless and powerless on the Kansas City sideline as Brady and the Patriots churned out a touchdown drive. The Patriots got the ball to start overtime, and Kansas City never got it back, New England marching 75 yards in 13 plays. Along the way, the Patriots thrice converted on third and 10. The final, deciding blow of this heavyweight fight silenced the stadium that set the Guinness World Record for loudest crowd roar the last time the Patriots played here, the infamous Monday Night Massacre in 2014.
Belichick knew his team wasn’t suited to win a shootout with the Chiefs on their turf. So, the Patriots tried to shorten the game and the amount of time that they had to defend an offense that led the NFL with 35.3 points and 425.6 yards per game. They did that in the first half and then ended up in a second-half showdown.
Just like they did in the regular season meeting on Oct. 14, the Patriots allowed 31 second-half points to Chiefs after silencing and flummoxing them in the first half to take a 14-0 lead.
The Patriots set the tone and the tenor of the contest with their opening drive, a 15-play, 80-yard touchdown death march for the Kansas City defense that sucked 8:05 off the clock and the enthusiasm out of the Arrowhead Stadium crowd. It was the Patriots longest touchdown drive of the season. It ended with Sony Michel barreling in from a yard out.
The Patriots possessed the ball for 12:38 of the first quarter, and the Chiefs had it for 2:22. In the first half, the Patriots were on the field for 21:07 and ran 42 offensive plays for 245 yards, while the Chiefs had the ball for 8:53 and ran just 16 plays for 32 yards.
Possession is ninth-tenths of the law, and the No. 1 reason the Patriots were able to withstand the magical Mahomes and the Chiefs, who turned this one into a whiplash of lead changes in the fourth quarter and forced overtime on a field goal with eight seconds left. Mahomes made the most of his chances, but the Belichick had him off balance, as he finished 16 of 31 for 295 yards with three touchdowns and four sacks.
The Patriots played heavy — literally — with 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ends, and one wide receiver). They ran the ball 25 times for 99 yards in the first half. They also broke a tendency by running the ball with third-down back James White out of 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, and three receivers) when they had predominantly been a passing team out of that formation all season long.
Brady dropped back to pass 46 times in this game, completing 30 of them for 348 yards. Still, the Patriots ran more than they passed, attacking the Chiefs’ cotton-swab soft run defense to the tune of 48 carries for 176 yards. The yards per rush average might not be impressive, but the complementary football displayed by the Patriots was.
“Yeah, it was good,” Brady said. “They have an explosive offense with [Travis] Kelce and [Tyreek] Hill and Patrick. The way he played, he played a great game. You play on the road, and it’s going to be tough. What travels is running the ball and playing tough. That’s good in any weather, any condition, any environment, any stadium. That was a big part of our game.
“Sony ran his butt off. Rex ran his butt off. It was a great win.”
It didn’t all go to Belichick’s plan, as Brady threw two interceptions, including one in the end zone on third and goal in the second quarter, and the Patriots got stuffed on fourth and 1 from the KC 25 in the fourth quarter.
In some ways, this was reminiscent of the 2006 AFC Championship game against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. The Patriots led that game 21-6 at the half and couldn’t hold on, losing 38-34.
The Patriots led 17-7 to start the fourth quarter. They led 24-21 with 3:32 to go after a second TD run by Michel (29 carries for 113 yards) and 31-28 with 39 seconds left after a 4-yard touchdown run by Burkhead. But this time they left Mahomes too much time. He drove the Chiefs to the tying field goal. But he never saw the ball again, as the Patriots won the coin toss in overtime.
Don’t discredit the defense in this one. They held Chiefs speed demon Tyreek Hill to one catch for 42 yards and forced the Chiefs to grind it out.
Patriots safety Devin McCourty tipped his cap to Belichick and the coaching staff for a job well done.
“Our coaching staff don’t care about sleep. They don’t care about anything,” McCourty said. “When we came in there Tuesday to go over the scouting report I felt like the game plan was already in. It was just tweaking some things, because as soon as we won that game Sunday they got to work.
“As a player, there’s nothing more you can ask for from your coaches than for them to really give everything they got and prepare you so that when you go out on kickoff, everything else is behind us. We just get to go play free because Bill is going to make sure we practice it over and over again. We watch it in the meetings, so I think our players always have a ton of respect and are very thankful for our staff.
So now, the NFL’s OG genius, Belichick, will match up with the Millennial coaching genius, Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, in Super Bowl LIII. It should be a tremendous battle of wits. But simply getting this team to this point is a testament to the job Belichick has done this year. Like this game plan, it’s one of his greatest coaching feats.