By Gregory Hunt
The New England Patriots are heading to their fifth consecutive AFC Championship Game thanks to a 27-20 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in a Divisional Playoff game Saturday at Gillette Stadium. Thanks to the return of several key players from injury, the Patriots were able to cool off a red-hot Chiefs team that had won 11 consecutive games coming into this weekend.
The Patriots opened up with an 11-play, 80-yard drive that consisted of nothing but passes to tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receivers Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Brandon LaFell. The key to that drive was the protection of quarterback Tom Brady, who had been taking a lot of hits in recent weeks. The Chiefs are known for having an aggressive pass rush, but they rarely tried to blitz after that first drive. Brady was not sacked once, and he completed 13 consecutive passes at one point.
Wide receiver Keshawn Martin got into the action catching a 42-yard pass on a play where Kansas City thought Gronkowski was the intended target. That was the biggest play on an 11-play, 98-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter. Gronkowski finished with two touchdown receptions despite back problems that flared up during the course of the week. The running game was a non-factor, as the leading rusher Steven Jackson gained only 16 yards on six carries.
The Patriots defense didn’t give up explosive plays on Kansas City’s first drive, which went for 64 yards on 17 plays, but it did allow four 3rd-down conversions before it finally forced the Chiefs to kick a field goal. New England did have some initial difficulty with Kansas City’s zone read offense, but Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith didn’t complete any passes of more than 20 yards except for a pair to wide receiver Jason Avant.
In the third quarter, defensive end Chandler Jones forced a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Dont’a Hightower. New England didn’t do a lot of blitzing, but enough pressure was put on Smith to force him into a completion percentage of only 58 percent. Jones did make New England’s only sack. Smith’s biggest plays were with his feet, particularly on a scramble where he avoided a seemingly inevitable sack to complete a pass and convert a third down. That kept alive Kansas City’s first touchdown drive of the game.
Special Teams: C+
On a punt return, running back Brandon Bolden made a big tackle that’s usually made by gunner Matthew Slater. Ryan Allen’s punting was a little off in the first half; a line drive punt in the second quarter went for only 43 yards and was brought back 19 yards by Kansas City punt returner Frankie Hammond. A rare offside penalty on a New England kickoff in the second quarter forced Stephen Gostkowski to make a second kick, which was returned to the Kansas City 34-yard line.
Gostkowski’s 40-yard field goal in the fourth quarter helped hold off a potential Kansas City rally. Danny Amendola had a 20-yard punt return that set up Gostkowski’s second field goal.
The only mistake made by defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was choosing to rush only three lineman on a 3rd-and-13 in the first quarter. The defensive line couldn’t contain Smith and he ran for a first down, but Patricia made some adjustments and New England kept Smith relatively well-contained for the rest of the game.
Defensive coordinator Josh McDaniels didn’t appear to trust his running game, and that didn’t allow New England to run the clock very much in the second half. Nevertheless, New England’s quick passing game kept Brady upright virtually the entire game.
New England will now play for the AFC Championship against the winner of Sunday’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field. The Steelers will play that game without the services of either All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown or running back DeAngelo Williams, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is dealing with a sprained throwing shoulder. New England will host the AFC Championship if sixth-seeded Pittsburgh somehow pulls off an upset, but odds are the Patriots will need to travel to Denver to face the number-one seeded Broncos.
Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on