FOXBOROUGH — The boo birds were chirping at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
The small chorus at the end of the first half was directed at the Patriots. But that loud crescendo at the end of the game? Well, that was aimed squarely at the men in the stripes.
The Patriots’ home winning streak was snapped at 21 games, as the Chiefs clinched the AFC West with a 23-16 victory in a game where flying flags were more the story than flying footballs.
Referee Jerome Boger and his crew were quick to make calls, but their consistency and conviction were lacking. There were 15 accepted calls and numerous others that were picked up (after lengthy group chats) or declined.
Two calls particularly stung the hosts, halting some of the second-half momentum they had generated after falling behind, 23-7.
The first came at the end of the third quarter when Stephon Gilmore could have had a scoop and score on a Travis Kelce fumble that was whistled dead. The call was overturned on review, giving New England the ball, but not the 6 points.
“I thought it was a fumble and I picked it up, they should have let it keep playing,’’ said Gilmore.
The second came on the ensuing possession, when N’Keal Harry’s apparent dive for the pylon was ruled short. The downfield official ruled that Harry stepped out at the 3-yard line, a decision that replays showed was incorrect.
Boger, who said officials were blocked by defenders on the play, was asked if the group ever considered ruling it a touchdown, so the play would be automatically reviewed.
“Not really,” he told a pool reporter. “Those two officials who were covering it, they look at it in real time. This case was unique in that the guy who would have ruled touchdown had him short. So, maybe if that ruling official on the goal line had a touchdown, we could have gotten into that, but he thought that that guy stepped out of bounds. The goal line wasn’t in the play.”
After seeing two possible touchdowns wiped out, the Patriots (10-3) had to settle for a field goal, which made it 23-16. They never scored again.
The Patriots had differing opinions on the performance of the flag throwers.
“For the most part, we can’t worry about [the calls], all we can do is go out and keep playing,’’ said Shilique Calhoun. “They have to make their calls — their job is tough to begin with. We’ll leave it up to them to make those calls and we’ll leave it up to us to make plays. We just have to constantly keep making them, and just do our best each and every down.’’
Matthew Slater bit his tongue on the officiating because, “I don’t want to get fined.’’ Duron Harmon called it “one of the toughest losses” because he felt the missed calls curtailed the team’s comeback.
Things couldn’t have started any better for the struggling Patriots offense.
The hosts needed only five plays — and a couple of costly Chiefs pass-interference calls on back-to-back third downs — to cover 83 yards.
Following the second call, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out a winner.
Tom Brady slipped a handoff to James White, who stopped after two short steps and flicked it back to his quarterback.
Brady spotted Julian Edelman streaking down the right seam and hit him at the 3-yard line. Edelman’s momentum and a diving tackle by Bashaud Breeland carried the receiver into the end zone for the score.
Newly re-signed kicker Nick Folk hit the PAT for the 7-0 score. It marked New England’s first opening-drive touchdown since Week 7 against the Jets.
The Chiefs (9-4) owned the rest of the half, scoring 20 straight points as the Patriots made some uncharacteristic mistakes, including a Brady pick and a blocked field-goal attempt.
Harrison Butker’s 48-yard field goal and Patrick Mahomes’s 48-yard bomb to Mecole Hardman gave the Chiefs a 10-7 lead, a lead they would hold for the remainder of the day.
On New England’s ensuing possession, it gave the ball right back, as Brady’s pass for Matt LaCosse was intercepted by Breeland.
It took Mahomes seven plays to drive 35 yards and increase the lead. Kelce capped the march, the tight end taking a direct snap and sidestepping a couple of defenders to make it 17-7.
The Chiefs tacked on field goals on their final possession of the first half and their opening drive of the second half to stretch their lead to 23-7.
That’s when the Patriots’ defense stiffened.
New England held Mahomes and his myriad weapons, who had run free during the first half, in check for the duration of the game.
“I thought we just took away the shot,’’ said Devin McCourty, when asked about the defense’s adjustments. “I think all games are like that, you kind of figure out [things]. You see their game plan and what they want to do. I thought we put ourselves in a good position on a lot of defensive calls to go out there and make stops. The thing with them you’ve got do a good job of tackling and not giving up on the play. I thought that’s what we did a good job of.’’
The offense, meanwhile, started to show signs of life, after getting a spark from special teams in the form of Nate Ebner’s blocked punt that landed at the KC 19. Brandon Bolden’s 10-yard end-around cut the deficit to 23-13. White’s rush up the middle on the 2-point try was stopped.
Following Folk’s 29-yard field goal after the missed Harry call, the Patriots did have a shot to tie the game. Their final drive, however, which started with White’s first career pass — a 35-yarder to Jakobi Meyers — ended at the Chiefs’ 5-yard line when Brady’s fourth-down pass to Edelman fell incomplete with 1:06 left.
“I’m really proud of the way our team competed,’’ said coach Bill Belichick. “Those guys went and battled for 60 minutes. It wasn’t always perfect, there were certainly things we could have done better, but we were competitive right down to the final play and that’ll serve us well going forward.’’