The New England Patriots are headed to their third consecutive Super Bowl and ninth of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, after a heart-pounding OT victory over the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Sunday, 37-31.
Following a fourth quarter featuring a ridiculous four lead changes ended with Chiefs PK Harrison Butker drilling a 39-yarder to force overtime, Tom Brady led the Patriots 75 yards on 13 plays, capped by Rex Burkhead's second scoring plunge, stunning the Arrowhead faithful who'd watched yet another crushing home playoff defeat.
Brady (30-of-46 for 348 yards, 1 TD and 2 INTs) wasn't perfect, throwing the two picks — one at the Chiefs goal line with his team looking to go up two scores early and the second a deflection off the hands of Julian Edelman late. He should have tossed a third, which likely would have sealed a Chiefs victory on New England's final regulation possession, on third-and-10 off the hands of Rob Gronkowski. But it was negated by a Dee Ford offsides penalty, the biggest gaffe of the game for the Chiefs.
But Brady was clutch when it mattered most. He called an audible on fourth-and-goal midway through the fourth quarter into Sony Michel's 10-yard go-ahead touchdown, and converted three third-and-longs in overtime — two to Edelman and one to Rob Gronkowski, who also had a critical late catch over Eric Berry in regulation — for the victory.
Soon-to-be league MVP Patrick Mahomes was brilliant in the second half, tossing three touchdowns and leading TD drives on four of six second-half possessions to help the Chiefs overcome 14-0 and 17-7 deficits. But he never touched the ball in the extra period thanks to the crunch-time mastery of Brady and, Patriots conspiracy theorists surely will say, some help from the zebras.
Say what you will about Julian Edelman's seemingly too-close-to-overturn brain fart while fielding — and appearing to ever-so-barely touch — a punt that was recovered by the Chiefs yet awarded back to New England upon replay. And it's debatable whether Chris Hogan's incredible one-handed catch, good for 11 yards on third-and-8 on the Patriots' game-tying drive, should have been upheld upon review.
But it's tough to argue that Brady and Co. didn't get a massive break on that same drive in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter. On second-and-7 deep in New England territory, only moments after the Chiefs had taken their first lead of the afternoon, Pro Bowl DT Chris Jones was called for roughing Brady. Except Jones clearly didn't make contact with Brady's helmet — the official's explanation for the flag — and the Chiefs didn't get another meaningful stop.
The controversial officiating is just part of an instant classic that will be discussed for years, from impending MVP Mahomes' incredible underhand and sidearm conversions to the reigning MVP's latest January heroics to the iffy replays — did Edelman make contact with the punt that was recovered by the Chiefs before being overturned? Did Hogan secure the circus catch on the Patriots' game-tying TD late? Were there legitimate pass interference infractions on J.C. Jackson on the Chiefs' game-tying drive at the end of regulation?
In the end, though, the result was the same as it's been for the better part of the past decade and a half: with Brady and Belichick celebrating yet another trip to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots dominated the first half defensively with a creative game plan that sent pressure from every direction on Mahomes, outgaining the NFL's No. 1 offense, 245-32. Although the Chiefs almost inevitably came storming back, much like they did during the regular season, the Patriots ensured it wouldn't again be Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce beating them. Kansas City's All-Pro skill pairing combined for only four catches, 65 yards and one touchdown, as the Patriots preferred to let Sammy Watkins and Damien Williams do much of the damage.
They again proved to be adaptable, starting the game on offense for a second consecutive week with a smash-mouth, clock-chewing TD drive before opening things up after intermission, when they absorbed and matched Mahomes' and Andy Reid's haymakers.
Many Patriots critics will cry conspiracy, especially with the NFL's penultimate postseason Sunday intermixing great drama and horrific officiating. But with their commanding yardage (524 to 290) and time-of-possession advantages (43:59 to 20:53), the Patriots — as underdogs — deserve a ton of credit for going on the road and knocking off the NFL MVP and conference's top seed twice this season.