If third down represents a fault line between the success of an offense and defense, the Patriots did a remarkable, virtually unprecedented job Sunday of remaining on terra firma while sending the Chiefs crumbling into an abyss.
The Patriots’ ability to outscore the Chiefs in their 37-31 overtime win in the AFC Championship game, to keep putting points on the board or at least threaten to do so on nearly every drive, owes heavily to third-down dominance.
The Patriots converted 13 of 19 third downs, a staggering success rate of 68.4 percent that marked the second-highest third-down conversion rate ever in a Patriots playoff game since at least 1991, the earliest season in which the statistic is archived by Pro-Football-Reference.com.
“We had them on third down but we just couldn’t get off of the field. We had them,” Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland lamented to reporters. “You just have to finish man, you just have to finish.”
The Chiefs didn’t, and the Patriots certainly did. The 13 third-down conversions were the most in an NFL game this year, and in fact the most by the Patriots in any game since at least 1991. That total was also the most in any NFL playoff game since at least 1991.
New England had six third-down conversions of at least 7 yards. The three other teams participating in the conference championship games combined for two (one by the Rams, one by the Saints, none by the Chiefs). The six conversions on third and 7 or longer were tied for the most in any NFL playoff game since at least 1994.
Perhaps more stunning, the Patriots managed to convert three passes for first downs on third and 10 in overtime on the way to the game-winning touchdown. That performance marked the first time since at least 1994 — regular season or playoffs — by any team in which it converted at least three third downs of that distance in overtime.
Sunday’s performance represented a striking contrast to a somewhat modest regular-season performance by the Patriots on third downs. Through 16 games, New England owned a 40.8 percent third-down conversion rate, 13th in the NFL and slightly better than the league average of 39.1 percent.
But they seemed to be trending in the wrong direction late in the season, converting just six of 22 third downs (27 percent) in Weeks 15 and 16 against the Steelers and Bills, a two-week period during which the Patriots averaged just 17 points — at a time when receiver Josh Gordon left the team prior to getting hit with a suspension.
Yet the team rebounded against the Jets by gaining the necessary yardage on 5 of 11 third downs (45 percent), then improved to 7 of 14 (50 percent) against the Chargers in the divisional round before Sunday’s spirit-breaking performance against Kansas City. In those games, the Patriots scored 38, 41, and 37 points, continuing a year-long correlation between third-down success and high point totals.
In nine regular-season and playoff games in which the Patriots converted at least 45 percent of their third downs, they’re 8-1 and averaged 36.7 points per game; they scored at least 30 points in all but one of those games. In nine games when falling short of 45 percent, they’re 5-4 with 20.4 points per game and scored as many as 30 only once.
So what’s changed to unlock so much success in the playoffs? Brady and the passing game.
The Patriots have thrown roughly as much on third down in the playoffs as they did in the regular season, with a 2-1 ratio of passes to runs. Brady was 65 of 124 passing with 11 sacks while turning 135 dropbacks into just 48 first downs (36 percent) during the regular season.
But he has been transcendent in the playoffs. He’s 18 for 22 passing for 191 yards and 14 first downs (64 percent) in two playoff games — a number undoubtedly aided significantly by the work of the offensive line in that time, as he hasn’t been sacked on third down (or, for that matter, any other down) in the two playoff games.
Brady has focused chiefly on James White, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski in the playoffs, with 17 of his 22 third-down passes (77 percent) going to that familiar trio. In the regular season, he targeted those three options on 58 percent of his passes — though, of course, Edelman’s four-game suspension lowered that number.
Still, starting in Week 5, the Patriots targeted White, Gronkowski, and Edelman with 63 percent of their third-down passes. Clearly, those players have assumed a larger role in the third-down passing game in the playoffs.
The combined work of the line, the receivers, and Brady himself on third down has been little short of extraordinary in the playoffs, transforming a team that at different times this year seemed so far divorced from other Patriots teams to one that has seemed incredibly familiar — both in execution and in destination — in January.