All those phantoms of Tom Brady’s imagination must be feeling pretty foolish right about now.
All those inventions of a player who has won so much that he had been forced to resort to illusion for motivation – “Everybody thinks we suck,” the quarterback of a dynasty actually uttered last week – seem especially lame today.
For in the real world, everybody knows that come the playoffs the New England Patriots are almost physically incapable of sucking. You don’t find a real underdog in that huddle any more than you would on the list of the Fortune 500.
Here’s the truth: The Patriots are coming to Atlanta for the Super Bowl – their third straight trip to the big game, their fourth in five years, their ninth in this young century. On the NFC side of the Atlanta equation, there may be a new variable in the Los Angeles Rams. For the AFC, there is only the given.
Sunday, the Patriots beat back the latest batch of young, exciting play-makers to challenge them, outlasting the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime, 37-31. It was a wild shoot-out in the fourth quarter, one that featured a combined 38 points and four lead changes. It required New England to rely upon a combination that has been the mortar of its dynasty - good play and good fortune. It demanded that the Patriots sweat out the last few best throws of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
But in the end, the Patriots did what they always seem to do - win, somehow. And Kansas City could only watch as the trophy named after the Chiefs founder, Lamar Hunt, was once more handed over to New England.
Falcons fans are aware of the Patriots’ uncanny skill at winning the coin flip in overtime, taking the ball and closing the deal. That was the plot in the Super Bowl two years ago. That was the how Sunday played out as well. New England calls heads, heads it is, and it drives 75 yards - three times converting on third-and-10 - for the win. “It’s in (Brady’s) DNA,” said receiver Julian Edelman, “he has the clutch gene.”
“Soon as I heard heads, I saw this coming,” Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty said. “I’ve seen this before. Anytime it’s overtime and we get the ball, I’m not worried. I get comfortable.”
Brady doesn’t win every time he has the ball at the end, it just seems that way.
So much happened late in this one, you could almost forget there was a beginning. Way back then, there were other coin flip developments.
Winning that toss, Kansas City chose to defer to the second half and let New England and Brady make the opening statement. You wouldn’t have wanted to follow Lincoln in a debate or Pavarotti on “The Voice.” This was like that.
So, not unexpectedly, the Patriots settled right in and made themselves at home on that first possession. Just took over the place. Fifteen plays and 8:05 after the opening kick, Sony Michel ran the final yard for the evening’s first touchdown. The former Georgia running back finished with 113 yards rushing.
As the Chiefs reeled early, the start of the second quarter at least brought them a momentary reprieve. With the Pats were remorselessly driving toward a second touchdown, the unthinkable happened. Brady made a mistake.
On third-and-goal from the K.C. 1-yard line, he threw to the middle of the end zone in the general direction of tight end Rob Gronkowski. Instead, linebacker Reggie Ragland leapt and plucked the pass like low-hanging fruit for a life-giving interception.
But, like the first time these two teams met this season, back on Week Six, Mahomes and the Chiefs were slow to warm to the task. Like that game, 2018’s league leader in scoring could not find the end zone in the first half.
The half played out all in the Pats favor. With a bit over four minutes left in it, Mahomes, in quick succession, missed a wide open Damien Williams for a sure touchdown and then took a bad, 14-yard sack on third down that took the Chiefs out of field goal range.
Punting the Pats back to their 10 was no help. Brady simply changed gears, went to quick-score mode, and drove New England 90 yards in just eight plays to grab a 14-0 lead before the half was out. He finished it off with a poorly contested 29-yard pass to wide receiver Phillip Dorsett.
A strong MVP candidate, Mahomes may have suffered his worst half of a charmed season, completing just 4 of 8 passes for 65 yards (42 of those on a single completion to wide receiver Tyreek Hill). And his offense was practically invisible those first 30 minutes, holding the ball for less than nine minutes in the half and running only 16 plays to the Pats’ 42.
He sprang to life in the second half, more than doubling his first-half passing yardage in the just first two minutes of the second half in driving the Chiefs 74 yards in just four plays. The lightning that lives in this offense finally showed itself. And Mahomes would finish with 247 passing yards and three touchdowns.
The question remained as to whether it was possible to spot Brady and New England a 14-point lead and live to tell about it.
Oh, how the Chiefs tried.
They stoned the Patriots on fourth down on the Chiefs 25, stuffing Rex Burkhead’s leap with 9:30 left to play.
They survived a painfully long review in which a muffed punt by Edelman was overturned when it was ruled on a microscopic level he didn’t touch the ball.
They enjoyed a moment of karma just a couple plays later when when Brady’s pass bounced off Edelman’s hands - no doubt about it this time - and into those of safety Daniel Sorensen. The Chiefs cashed that in on an eventual 23-yard throw-back touchdown pass to running back Damien Williams. That gave K.C. its first lead, 21-17, with 7:45 to play.
Back and forth they’d go.
New England retook the lead (24-21) with 3:32 left, when on fourth and inches, Michel went 10 yards untouched for 24-21 lead.
Kansas City grabbed it back (28-24) when, with the aid of two penalties on the Patriots secondary, the Chiefs drove 68 yards in five plays.
That left Brady with 2:03 to do something memorable. Kind of a specialty of his. But this 65-yard touchdown drive came with a twist. A potential game-ending Chiefs interception off the hands of Gronkowski was nullified by an offside call on Kansas City linebacker Dee Ford. Brady went right back to Gronkowski for a big 25-yard completion that set up a Burkhead 4-yard touchdown run.
Game over with 32 seconds left? Not hardly. Mahomes completions of 21 and 27 yards positioned Harrison Butker for a 39-yard field goal that tied the game at 31.
The Patriots won the toss, and the Chiefs fate was sealed. Three times Brady converted third down completions, because that’s what he does. And Burkhead ran the final two yards for the win. “Everyone was making highlight catches left and right, getting first downs,” Gronkowski said.
“One of my sweeter victories,” he added. And his list is long.
“It’s probably as excited as I’ve been in a long time,” Brady declared afterward. “One play here, one play there could have changed everything, but that’s football.” He’s 41, more accomplished than anyone else who has ever played this game, and still finding new ways to please himself. He finished 30 of 46 for 348 yards, one TD, two interceptions.
In other developments, Brady and his coach Bill Belichick are now 9-4 in AFC Championship games.
Belichick is 7-2 head-to-head vs. Kansas City’s championship-blighted coach Andy Reid.
And nothing ever changes in the AFC.