By Peter Gleason
The ending of last night’s AFC title game between the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs was surreal.
When running back Rex Burkhead pushed into the end zone with the game-ending touchdown in the Patriots 37-31 victory, quarterback Tom Brady began jumping up and down as he turned toward his team’s sideline.
In the Patriots’ locker room a short while later, New England wide receiver Julian Edelman, who caught two overtime passes from Brady, said of his quarterback: “There’s no one I’d rather have in two-minute drill than No. 12. It’s in his DNA. He has a clutch gene.”
Brady, meanwhile, focused elsewhere.
“I’m so tired,” he said. “That was a hell of a game.”
The Patriots have played in many such games. In almost every season this decade they stumbled enough that it appeared the long run at the highest level of success must surely be nearing its expiration date. And then there’s another game like Sunday when the Patriots, despite squandering a first half lead, nonetheless held off one of the most potent offenses in the NFL to persevere and qualify for their third consecutive Super Bowl and fifth in the last eight years.
New England will play the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl 53 on Feb. 3 in Atlanta — which happens to be the 17th anniversary of New England’s Super Bowl victory over the Rams, who were then based in St. Louis.
After a fourth quarter that featured five touchdowns from both teams, the Patriots received the football first in overtime. Brady twice pierced the Chiefs defense with dart-like throws on third down to Edelman to keep the drive alive. Soon the Patriots were at the Kansas City 30-yard line, but two Brady throws — one on a flea-flicker — fell incomplete.
On third down, Brady rifled a pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski for 15 yards. Burkhead then carried the football on three successive plays, with the last ending the game.
“Overtime, on the road against a great team — they had fight, they had no quit,” Brady said of the Chiefs in an interview with CBS after the game.
The Patriots, who ran twice as many plays as the Chiefs did on Sunday, had taken a 24-21 lead late in the fourth quarter on a drive aided by a roughing-the-passer penalty and an 11-yard, one-handed reception by New England wide receiver Chris Hogan. On 4th-and-1 from Kansas City’s 10-yard line, Sony Michel, who had 113 rushing yards, burst through the middle, giving his team a led with just 3 minutes and 32 seconds left to play.
The Chiefs responded quickly, regaining the lead in five plays and less than 90 seconds when a pass interference penalty and a 38-yard pass to wide receiver Sammy Watkins led to a 2-yard touchdown run by Damien Williams.
With just over two minutes to play, Brady got the ball and marched his team down the field, with Burkhead bulling into the end zone to put New England ahead, 31-28, with 39 seconds left in the game.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes coolly led the Chiefs back, going 48 yards in just two plays, and with 11 seconds remaining, Kansas City’s kicker, Harrison Butker, sent the game into overtime with a 39-yard field goal that tied the game, 31-31.
Kansas City had trailed by 14-0 after the opening two quarters — the first time since coach Andy Reid took over the team in 2013 that the Chiefs had failed to score in the first half — but the team came out for the third quarter invigorated, scoring a touchdown less than two minutes into the half.
It was the Patriots who looked more energized amid frigid temperatures at first. New England opened the game with a 15-play, 80-yard masterpiece of precision and versatility, consistently confusing the Chiefs’ defense and keeping it backpedaling for more than eight consecutive minutes of playing time.
The tone of the opening drive was set on the first New England play from scrimmage, when Michel sliced through a gaping hole in the middle of the Kansas City front line for an 11-yard gain.