Sunday’s AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs was a heavyweight, high-stakes battle — one that reached its climax in the fourth quarter and overtime. Kansas City fought its way back into the game despite being down 14-0 at the half and took its first lead of the day midway through the final period of regulation, kicking off an epic back-and-fourth in the contest’s final minutes.
Let’s take a look how New England’s offense was able to match the Chiefs blow for blow until the unit’s 97th snap finally brought a decision in the Patriots’ favor.
4th quarter: Patriots at 7:45
3-8-NE 45 (6:25) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short right to C.Hogan to KC 44 for 11 yards (S.Nelson).
After the Patriots’ four drives in the second half produced just three combined points and two turnovers — one on downs, one an interception — the team’s offense was under pressure to perform after Kansas City went up 21-17 with less than eight minutes left in the game. New England started the series well but after a short run and incomplete pass found itself in a 3rd and 8 situation at its own 45-yard line.
While the Patriots might have gone for it on fourth down if in a realistic position to pick it up, the team never had to make this decision thanks to a spectacular 11-yard grab by wide receiver Chris Hogan:
Kansas City approached the down in a cover 2 man-to-man defense, with the defensive backs playing close to the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing of the routes. Hogan was lined up on the weak side of the formation with cornerback Steven Nelson across from him. Nelson actually did a good job of initiating contact with Hogan but the veteran wide receiver got inside position on his crossing pattern.
Tom Brady, who was given plenty of time in the pocket, was able to scan the field properly and pick Hogan as his target. It paid off: he made a one-handed catch to keep the chains moving.
4-1-KC 10 (3:35) S.Michel up the middle for 10 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
The Patriots drove into the red area fairly quickly after Hogan’s third down conversion, but found themselves in a 4th and 1 with 3:35 left. New England was stopped on a fourth down run earlier in the quarter, but found more success this time around. Sony Michel did not only get enough yards for the first down, he also ran right through the Chiefs’ short yardage defense to take the football to the end zone and give the Patriots the lead again:
New England approached the down in an 21-personnel group with Michel, fullback James Develin, tight end Rob Gronkowski and two wide receivers — Chris Hogan flanked out wide to the left, Julian Edelman closer to the right of the formation — on the field. The Patriots made clear they were looking to run the football, and the Chiefs still had no chance at stopping the play as the blocking was tremendous.
Right guard Shaq Mason and center David Andrews neutralized Kansas City’s interior pressure, which in turn allowed right tackle Marcus Cannon to get deeper and effectively clear out three players: he stopped safety Daniel Sorensen, who had thwarted the Patriots’ first fourth down try, and was also able to take linebackers Reggie Ragland and Anthony Hitchens out of the play.
Meanwhile, linebacker Justin Houston had no chance at all against Gronkowski’s kick-out block while James Develin bull-dozed safety Eric Berry. If there is one play to demonstrate the Patriots’ dominance in the trenches on Sunday, this would be it.
4th quarter: Patriots at 2:03
1-10-NE 35 (1:57) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass deep middle to J.Edelman to KC 45 for 20 yards (J.Lucas; K.Fuller).
After Kansas City went up yet again, the Patriots offense again had to drive down the field to score a touchdown — and they delivered once more. The first play of the series set the tone, as Brady connected with wide receiver Julian Edelman on a 20-yard completion to get the team to the Kansas City side of the field:
New England used an 11-personnel package — three wide receivers, one running back, one tight end — on the play, with Edelman originally aligning split out wide on the weak-side of the formation. He motioned closer to the middle of the field before the snap, however, which caused the Chiefs to slightly change their man-to-man coverage responsibilities: slot cornerback Kendall Fuller would take over Edelman, with Charvarius Ward covering Phillip Dorsett.
After the snap, Edelman was able to get inside positioning on Fuller on a crossing route which allowed him to get a step on the cornerback — and for Brady to hit him for a gain of 20 yards on a perfectly placed pass behind underneath defender Daniel Sorensen. What also helped was deep safety Jordan Lucas being late to come over after moving back off his initial position.
3-5-KC 29 (:54) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass deep left to R.Gronkowski to KC 4 for 25 yards (E.Berry).
Following an interception that was overturned due to a Kansas City penalty, the Patriots found themselves in a 3rd and 5 situation — and with tight end Rob Gronkowski getting single-coverage against safety Eric Berry, playing press-man coverage just like the rest of Kansas City’s secondary. Tom Brady immediately knew that this was the matchup he wanted on that crucial a play:
While Gronkowski is having a down-year as a receiver by all statistical measures, he delivered arguably his best game of the season on the biggest stage — with this catch one of his biggest moments of the day. Even though Berry got his hands on him right away, the 29-year old was able to fight through the contact and generate enough space to catch the perfectly placed football for a new set of downs.
1-4-KC 4 (:42) R.Burkhead left tackle for 4 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
One play after the Gronkowski reception on third down, New England was back in the end zone — and up 31-28. Once again, the team turned to its devastating ground attack to get the job done near the goal line, with running back Rex Burkhead finding an opening for the touchdown from four yards out:
Just like they did on their last touchdown, the Patriots used a 21-personnel package on the play with the lone difference being the ball carrier: New England used Burkhead instead of Sony Michel. The result, however, was the same in large part due to the blocking up front — not just from the offensive line, but once again also the skill position players that were on the field.
Tackle Trent Brown and guard Joe Thuney kept the left-side edge open with a double-team block against Allen Bailey, which in turn allowed pulling guard Shaq Mason and fullback James Develin to easily identify their targets: Mason cleared out linebacker Dee Ford, with Develin taking on linebacker Reggie Ragland. Another key block was made by wide receiver Julian Edelman, who took Daniel Sorensen out of the play.
With Burkhead showing some decisive downhill running on the play, the Patriots wound up with the lead again. However, it did not last as Kansas City tied the contest on a field goal just 34 seconds of game time later.
Overtime: Patriots at 15:00
3-10-NE 35 (13:40) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short middle to J.Edelman to KC 45 for 20 yards (D.Sorensen).
After winning the overtime coin toss and receiving the football, the Patriots were able to continue their offensive momentum. They moved the chains on their first play of extra time, but after a run for no gain and an incompletion were facing another third down with 10 yards needed to keep the drive alive. And like Tom Brady did in two previous such situations, he again turned to Julian Edelman:
One of the key aspects of the play is one we already saw on the 20-yard reception to Edelman to open the Patriots’ final possession of the fourth quarter: the wide receiver moving further to the inside before the snap. Once again, the Chiefs reacted by switching coverage responsibilities with slot cornerback Kendall Fuller taking over the assignment of covering Edelman, and Steven Nelson playing against Phillip Dorsett.
Unfortunately for the Chiefs, however, the memo did not immediately reach Fuller: at the snap, he initially turned outside as if covering Dorsett before moving back to the middle of the field where Edelman was already running in full stride. At that point, the matchup was already lost from Kansas City’s perspective: Edelman was open and with the safeties playing 10 yards off the line to gain, was picked as Brady’s target.
The quarterback placed the pass perfectly and Edelman, after already gaining first down yardage, survived a hit by Daniel Sorensen to gain additional yards.
3-10-KC 45 (12:51) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short middle to J.Edelman to KC 30 for 15 yards (C.Ward).
Three plays after the Patriots’ first third down conversion, they were in the same situation again. And not only did Brady turn to his favorite wide receiver once again, the Patriots once more used the same pre-snap motion to get themselves into a favorable position:
Just like he did on the previous third down play, Edelman moved towards the inside to create a two-player stack with fellow wide receiver Phillip Dorsett. This time, however, the Chiefs opted to defend the play differently: instead of the slot cornerback taking over Edelman, Charvarius Ward kept the assignment with Kendall Fuller staying on Dorsett. However, it did not make a difference.
The Patriots were able to run a natural pick with Dorsett slightly impeding Ward which in turn allowed Edelman to get a step on the rookie. With the safeties again playing off the sticks to prevent a potential deep pass, Brady once more went to the veteran wideout in the middle of the field. While Ward was able to make the tackle, he did not take him down before New England had moved the sticks.
3-10-KC 30 (11:57) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short left to R.Gronkowski to KC 15 for 15 yards (E.Berry).
The final third down play of the game came with 11:57 left in overtime, and once again it saw a Brady-to-Gronkowski pass move the chains against Eric Berry — playing in just his third game all season — in coverage. As was the case on the previous conversion to Gronkowski, he was split out wide to the left with the safety in single coverage on him. This time, however, Gronkowski did not head up the field but instead ran a slant route:
New England approached the play in an 11-personnel set with a trips formation to the right and Gronkowski the lone receiver on the other side. The Chiefs’ focus, however, was not on the big tight end who at that point had caught five passes for 64 yards against them. Instead, safety Daniel Sorensen decided to move up the field at the snap to help cover wide receiver Julian Edelman after he torched Kansas City on the previous two third downs.
This, in turn, left Berry one-on-one against Gronkowski and he took advantage: he got inside position on the veteran safety and caught the tight-window pass for a quick first down. How quick? It took just 2.2 seconds to get the ball from center David Andrew through Brady to Gronkowski. As soon as Sorensen started to creep down, Brady knew where he would go with the football — one of many perfect decisions he made late in the game.
2-2-KC 2 (10:10) R.Burkhead up the middle for 2 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
The game’s final three plays — during which the Chiefs interestingly enough did not use one of their timeouts to give the defense a much-needed breather — were all carries by running back Rex Burkhead. The last of which came on a 2nd and goal situation from the 2-yard line:
New England used a jumbo package on the game-winning play: the team brought backup offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle onto the field to serve as an extra blocker on the right, with Rob Gronkowski and tight end Dwayne Allen lining up on the left. Fullback James Develin was again in the backfield to serve as the lead blocker for Burkhead — and once again had a profound impact on the play.
Develin cleared the path for Burkhead to reach the end zone by moving linebacker Reggie Ragland back and creating an opening. Meanwhile, left tackle Trent Brown and Gronkowski eliminated defensive tackle Justin Hamilton and linebacker Justin Houston, respectively, by winning their one-on-ones. New England’s blockers up front dominated all day long and to see the game end on another run on which the group stood out was fitting.
All in all, we see that the Patriots executed perfectly in key situations while the Chiefs were simply too inconsistent: from them getting thrown off by Edelman’s pre-snap motions, to losing one-on-one battles against Gronkowski, to simply being too weak at the point of attack in the running game — New England’s offense delivered when it had to, while Kansas City’s much-maligned defense fell apart.